Image: US Army
The US Government has begun to invest heavily in 3D printing technologies recently, with several major programs ongoing to investigate the possibilities of making 3D printing capabilities cheaper, faster, and more widely available. Many in the design community are hoping that any resulting innovations filter down to the general public, democratizing the ability to prototype.
The US Military has embarked on three seemingly related initiatives related to 3D printing with the goal of reducing the time needed to create replacement parts for delicate front-line equipment. One of these programs seeks to make cheaper 3D printers and has already met with some success, reducing the cost of printers from roughly $3,000 to $695. These printers are also capable of making their own replacement parts, building in a useful redundancy. The printers would be deployed in mobile labs being developed as part of a second initiative. These labs occupy modified shipping containers that could be situated near war zones to provide fast replacement parts for battle equipment. Some of these 3D printing labs have already been deployed to Afghanistan and are currently being evaluated and modified. Finally, the Army has also invested in a research lab in Maryland, where researchers are testing the limits and applications of rapid prototyping.
On the civilian side of things, President Obama has approved $30 million to establish a new national 3D printing center in Youngstown, Ohio. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute will explore 3D printing on a large scale; as part of a military-led public-private partnership, the Institute will be investigating things like mass-produced machine parts and bones or other body parts for specific patients. It is hoped that these institutes will proliferate across the country’s ‘rust belt’ to reinvigorate American manufacturing capabilities.