Army taking 3D electronic printing to the next level

The Army has been making use of 3D printing technologies for a few years, deploying prototyping and printing equipment in mobile laboratories in Afghanistan and developing a system to repair damaged aircraft and ground vehicles in the field.

Researchers at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey are working on the next step, employing 3D electronic printing that could allow antennas to be printed onto a helmet or sensors into clothing – as well as the wing of an unmanned aerial vehicle to be printed in a single pass.

The work being done at Picatinny uses an ink jet printer and current-conducting inks to produce such things as an antenna made of silver nanoparticles that can be embedded into a helmet, electronics devices that can be printed onto the side of artillery, fuze elements for munitions, and even batteries, according to a report from Picatinny.

Potential benefits from the research include smaller, lighter electronics and, as with any type of deployed 3D printing, the ability to produce items, as needed, on the spot. They also generate less waste than conventionally produced electronics, said James Zunino, co-chair of the Materials Engineer and Printed Electronics, Energetic, Materials & Sensors at Picatinny.

"Instead of having to machine out the groves and put the sensor and the wires in the model, I can just use our printers to print electronics onto the model so they are already embedded," Zunino said. "You're not chemically etching away all the material, you're printing them the way you want them. It's more environmentally friendly, it's more cost effective and it's more time-efficient."

On a larger scale, electronics printing allows engineers to embed electronics, sensors and antennas into the wing of a UAV as it’s being printed, something that previously required a separate step.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been a fast-growing field for several years, being used to produce everything from prosthetics and musical instruments to cookies and somewhat unreliable guns. And although the process has been used to create circuit board and prototypes of electronics devices, actually embedding electronics, particularly high-current electronics, during printing is a recent development.

One of the earliest high-current printed electronics devices, developed at the University of Texas at El Paso, recently went into space in a CubeSat, one of 28 CubeSats launched last month by NASA and the Air Force. Recent developments also raise the possibility of printing microscale lithium ion batteries that can be embedded in sensors and other small devices as they’re printed.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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