From the bow to the bunker buster to the hydrogen bomb, new technologies have changed the face of warfare, and 3D printing looks set to be just as revolutionary. It’s been around since the 1980s, but as key patents expire and access to the technology becomes more readily available, its effects on the military promise to be considerable – though the biggest and most immediate impact may be from a surprisingly humble quarter.
Mention 3D printing and it’s likely to conjure up images of wonky key fobs brought home as trophies from middle school science projects. But the ability to print solid objects in three dimensions (also known as additive manufacturing) is more than just squirting out molten plastic under the direction of a CAD file. Modern printers can now handle metals, wood, fabric, foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, and even living cells with not only greater precision than ever before, but also in combination with one another in complex patterns that simply cannot be matched by conventional techniques.
With the ability to work with such a range of materials, 3D printing allows engineers to create prototypes of components and even complete devices in a fraction of the time previously needed and at much lower cost. Not surprisingly, such capabilities have attracted the attention of defense contractors and military planners. The question is, how will 3D printing actually change life for the soldier of the 21st century?
Weapons of war
The most obvious area is that of weaponry. When Cody Wilson unveiled his Liberator printable plastic gun, it caused a conniption among lawmakers and gun control advocates. Keeping track of firearms so they don’t fall into the wrong hands has always been a major headache on the national and international scene, but the idea that anyone with as printer and access to the internet could print a handgun stacks up as a nightmare scenario.
Worse, it soon became apparent that such printable weapons weren’t restricted to plastics. Using lasers and electron beams, more advanced printing systems can fuse metal alloy powders layer by layer to form complex objects. A case in point is Solid Concepts‘ creation of a fully functional 1911 semiautomatic pistol from 3D printed parts. This not only looked identical to a conventional firearm, but it had all the necessary parts and could be fired.
Learn more: 3D printing goes to war
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