Emerging Technology

A few ways 3D printing is about to transform the Army

Army composite 3D printing

ARL researchers print devices with wiring, sensors or energy storage embedded.

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, could soon transform many facets of the Army, from medical treatments and food production to clothing manufacturing and ordnance production. In some areas, the changes have already begun.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force started using 3D printing in 2012 in Afghanistan to produce tools and other gear. The Army Research Lab has explored using it to repair aircraft and ground vehicles in the field. Researchers are working on printing electronics into clothing and gear and have teamed up with NASA to develop the next generation of the technology.

Research teams elsewhere also are working on next-gen printing, such as those at the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine developing a way to use bioprinting to apply healthy cells to serious burns. Those cells could then grow into new skin, eventually with pores, sweat glands, hair and proper pigmentation.

Defense Systems has reported on some of the Army’s efforts, but research is going on in quite a few other areas. Here’s a look at four other projects investigating new uses for additive manufacturing.


Scientists at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., don’t just want additive manufacturing, they want agile manufacturing, too. The ability to print devices with wiring, sensors, batteries or other materials at the same time would save space and weight, and give soldiers in the field greater options for on-the-spot printing.

"DOD can't afford to wait for commercial industry to create this capability," Larry "LJ" Holmes, principal investigator for the lab's additive manufacturing material and technology development, said in a release. "Industry doesn't inherently understand our specific needs without ARL research informing them."

Holmes has received a patent for an additive manufacturing technology called Field-Aided Laminar Composite, or FALCom, that can create micro-composites used for strong, lightweight materials. He and other ARL researchers are working on ways to efficiently print anything from a medical device to unmanned aerial vehicles and repair parts.

Adding multifunctionality to the printing process further cuts down on the size and weight of a finished product. Researchers currently are using FALcom to create prototypes and study their properties, in the hope of eventually using 3D printing to manufacture the real thing.


Researchers at the Medical Prototype Development Laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., design and build medical equipment prototypes, and say 3D printing has been invaluable for creating models.

"3D printing speeds up the whole design process,” said lab chief Mark Brown. “The turnaround time has come down considerably."

The lab’s job is to make prototypes that are light and compact, transportable and rugged, and highly functional but easy to use. And if any assembly is required, it has to be done without tools. That can lead to a complicated process even for what might seem to be simple devices, but using 3D printing during development lets everyone involved see what the product will look like, offer feedback and consider manufacturing options more quickly.

One example: The lab developed a litter stand for Air Force Special Operations that could be folded up and carried in a backpack. Printing the prototype included printing a three-degrees-of-freedom joint that researchers said has a complex geometry that can be hard to visualize. Having the working product in hand speeded up the process.

The lab also is using 3D printing to reduce the size and weight of the Environmental Sentinel Biomonitor, a test kit that lets soldiers screen water for toxic chemicals. The process lets them see if new components will fit into a smaller form factors.

The lab uses 3D printing for exploring ideas but not for manufacturing the products, which are still made with conventional materials. Nevertheless, the speed of the development process enabled by 3D printing has cut costs and improved end results, while shortening the time it takes to get new products and devices into the field.


The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center develops a lot of the Army’s gear, from field clothing and chemical/biological protection gear to armor systems and helmet covers. And although researchers there work from 2D designs, they are starting to move toward 3D.

Advances in 3D printing would allow for printing, say, a combat uniform with rigid areas for protection but with flexible areas around joints for movement. “That could be really exciting because that is hard to accomplish with a regular textile," said Annette LaFleur, Design, Pattern and Prototype team leader at the center. And, not incidentally, it would eliminate a lot of seams in clothing, making it more comfortable and less likely to chafe.

3D printing could produce less expensive armor and custom clothing designed for specific jobs. It could also allow for incorporating ballistics materials and sensors into clothing. "We could create something that is a totally perfect fit and reduce weight, maybe reduce bulk. A lot of the neat textiles that are being 3D printed, even out of these synthetics, have a 3D structure to them," LaFleur said. "That makes you think about spacer-type materials where you have air flow, which is so important if our soldiers are going to be somewhere hot again, whether it is jungle or desert."


The idea of 3D printing food has been growing for some time, with confectioners printing candy and companies in Germany using purees of various foods to print out a finished product.  NASA also is exploring 3D printing food on long space voyages.

The Army is taking a similar approach to printing food in the field. Researchers at Natick are working to adapt and improve food printing technologies for the Army’s needs.

Among the benefits are that it would cut costs, because food could be produced on demand, eliminating waste. It could allow soldiers to “order” their meals essentially from a menu, giving each a choice. And it could allow soldiers to include specific nutrients they might be lacking.

Nutrition, of course, is one of the primary goals, researchers said. Other targets include maintaining a long shelf life, such as the three-year life of the Army’s Meals-Ready-to-Eat. And soldiers would have to have a printer compact enough and rugged enough for mobility and use in the field.

It may be a while before 3D printed food is ready for the field but researchers say they’re confident it will b get there. “I’ve been here long enough to see some of these ‘no ways’ become a reality, said food technologist Lauren Oleksyk. “Anything is possible.”

About the Author

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

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