In Natick, Massachusetts, there’s a unique place that serves soldiers in the field with combat capability research. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center is a scientific and technological foundation for the future force modernization of the United States Army. They perform innovative research and engineering for the development of different technologies to be used by soldiers at home and abroad.
Recently, a new and unique innovation has come from this place: the world's largest 3D printer. It is the result of a collaboration between the University of Maine and Command Soldier Center.
It was acquired by the University of Maine and its intent is to allows soldiers and troops on the ground to fabricate very large products. According to one of the researchers at the Center, Professor Habib Joseph Dagher, they are very enthusiastic about their partnership with the University of Maine.
How it Benefits the Soldier
"The new printer is uniquely suited for accelerating the prototyping of large, new products to benefit the soldier," says Dagher. He notes the 3D printer will be used collaboratively between the University and the U.S. Army.
The printer is the only one available to fabricate and print to the size and the scale required by that branch of the armed forces. It will provide them with a unique capability to create shelters, vehicles, and other large structures that the Army believes will actually revolutionize the speed and scale to which such things can be developed. The new 3D printer can produce structures and shelters up to 100 feet long. It fabricated a vehicle shelter in just 48 hours. This is significantly faster than conventional construction methods and materials.
Connie E. Miles-Patrick is the team leader for the Systems Development and Engineering team at the Center. She states:
This new 3D printing capability will allow Army scientists and engineers to prototype and evaluate new technologies at full scale, for form, fit, and function, early in the technology development process.
Miles-Patrick adds that the printer helps evaluate preliminary designs as full-scale prototypes and subsequently delivers new capabilities critical to soldier effectiveness. More importantly, it can do this rapidly. This factor is crucial when one considers the speed required of the soldier to be battle ready.
As she states: "The development of this capability is closely aligned with our [Army Futures Command] AFC mission and Army priorities.”
Beyond the Army
The development of a 3D printer such as this is instrumental not just for the Army but for the entire military. It further demonstrates how technology is often created by using research and development dollars from the Department of Defense. Once it is researched and developed, that technology can be transferred successfully from the military to the private sectors in subsequent years.
This process has been the way so much technology has migrated to the commercial sector. In other words, it's first introduced, developed, and worked within the defense sector, and then that technology is available to the commercial sector for further refinement.
This new development offers many possibilities of how it can be used after some run time in the military. For example, natural disaster areas would be able to use mobile 3D printers to fabricate structures for immediate housing in areas hit by a catastrophe where housing was wiped out, or other structures were eliminated and no longer available.
With a scalable and fast 3D printer such as the one being developed, it's now possible for structures to be fabricated quickly and to the scale that can make an impact on the rebuilding of a specific area.
The Future of Large Scale 3D Printers
There are other areas within society where large scale 3D printers can be quite effective and utilized. For example, to provide temporary shelter for the homeless, or for anywhere where a housing crisis might occur. It also may be able to provide scalable vehicles or large equipment that can actually be "printed" and produced at a large scale and in a very short amount of time.
What also is symbolic of success in this case is the collaboration between a university and the U.S. military to enhance and develop additive manufacturing. The research strength of the university is put to work, while the demand by the United States Army and their rugged and severe conditions in which they operate become a test bed for the researchers and scientists to create something of value and make a real difference.
We can only expect this effort to grow and develop to make a very positive impact on the U.S. Army and subsequently the world.