US army builds its own 3D printer

The US military is developing its own 3D printer that it can use to produce spare parts for spacecraft. By putting 3D printers behind the front line it hopes to be able to produce spares more cheaply and quickly than it can get them from manufacturers.

The army embarked on the project to produce its own printer as commercial devices were too expensive. Early versions of the printer cost $695 (£436) compared to $3,000 (£1,880) for a commercial model.

The 3D printer has been developed by the Future Warfare centre at the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) in Alabama.

3D printers are gadgets that form objects by melting and shaping plastic into a design dictated by a data file. They are becoming increasingly common and many engineering and research firms use them for rapid prototyping.

“The ability to replicate parts quickly and cheaply is a huge benefit to the warfighter,” said D Shannon Berry, an operations research analyst at the Future Warfare office, in a statement. Eventually, it is hoped the printer will find a larger role with US forces deployed overseas.

“Instead of needing a massive manufacturing logistics chain, a device that generates replacement parts is now small and light enough to be easily carried in a backpack or on a truck,” he said.

The key reason to develop the printer, said Mr Berry, was to produce cheap spare parts for the sensitive instruments it develops. SMDC systems are typically deployed in space, but prototypes are tested terrestrially on drones and other small aircraft.

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