While the Federal government is doing everything it can to curtail civilians from using 3-D printing technology to manufacture firearms by doing things like shutting down Defense Distributed, a nonprofit company started by a University of Texas law student, which has successfully made and fired a 3-D gun, the military could soon move forward with the technology in big ways.
Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza writes in a recent commentary for Armed Forces Journal that Navy ships should use 3-D printing to become floating munitions factories.
As Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Neil Gershenfeld puts it, the revolutionary aspect of 3-D printing is that it allows us to make things into data and data back into things. For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one. Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3-D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary.
Certainly, today’s ships and subs are not going to make everything they need on board, although it is tempting to imagine better uses for freed-up storage spaces. Today’s printers are generally limited to printing parts made of just one material, and variance is a big issue. But the development of multiple-material devices is well underway, and the technology is racing ahead. Perhaps closer at hand is a distributed global production network in which sailors and Marines send an email with a digital scan or design for a part they need and have it created at the nearest certified printer. Thinking bigger, the fleet might convert some Military Sealift Command ships into floating factories that can take print-on-demand orders from the battlegroup.
The things that might be ordered go far beyond mere parts. Several university labs and at least one defense contractor have turned out UAVs comprised entirely of printed parts, excepting the motor and electronics.
While there is still a great deal of research and development to be done, it looks as though 3-D printing will become a big part of America’s military/industrial complex. The question of whether the ability to produce weapons will be used by the government to keep 3-D printing out of civilian hands remains unanswered.