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Iterative product development using 3D printing in a combat zone

Ultimately this is how 3D printing might work in a combat zone.

3D printers are present at forward operating area and support areas as well as in rear areas. A large database of files is stored comprising of all the necessary CAD data of all military equipment. There are several tiers of 3D printing prowess and equipment:


Tier 1 full service bureau/FabLab at research and development center in home country: DMLS (titanium, steel for aircraft/drone parts), SLM (titanium, steel for finer parts), EBM(steel, titanium for medical implants, aircraft parts), FDM (plastic for molding, drone, interior parts), Voxeljet (sand casting for large structural elements, weapons), SLS (EOS, 3D systems for finer parts), Envisiontec (for small fine parts, small casts), Prometal (for rougher metal parts, large weapons), Zcorp/Viridris (glass, ceramics, molds), Objet (for fine parts, multi material), wax (digital wax, Solidscape medium casts). Cost 15m.

Tier 1 develops parts in cooperation with designers, engineers and students in response to urgent spare parts requirements and redesigns. Main activity is the testing and iterative redesign of core or vulnerable equipment. Design, test, develop and deliver parts to combat units within one week. Leverage experience of other units, networked capability, general public and best of engineering of the home country to help combat soldier.

Tier 2: Only the casting and plastic machines one or two DMLS or similar machines, in country capital.  3m. Supports rush spare parts and supplemental parts with engineering and design support. Most design input comes from combat units most expertise comes from home country.

Tier 3: Forward operating area 2 casting machines, 2 plastics machines , one engineer and one operator. Designs come from overseas. Some testing done in country. Work with combat units in redesign and support delivery of 3D prints to combat units. Delivery using drones within 5 hours of request.


A complete software toolchain from designer to combat unit will be implemented alongside cooperation and sharing tools so that veterans, designers, engineers and researchers can get an accurate visualization of combat unit needs. Internal file sharing and development platform is to be created to share, repair, redesign and plan files. Intelligent CAD solutions and easy design tools have to be deployed to engineering as well as regular units. Intelligent CAD software that incorporates real life physics into design will have to be developed. eg I 3D model window, software will recognize parameters needed for window to function, according to combat environment window design will be customized, if I specify bullet resistant quality then iCAD will update design parameters while at the same time calculating vehicle mileage and other effects on vehicle. If IED occurs software will respond by updating design of vehicle according to design principles, requirements, materials and processes possible and in field survivability. Goal is to let individual soldier uparmor own humvee.


1. Solider sends assessment to REMF detailing how vehicle has been damaged by IED.

2. Photographs, measurements and samples are taken to asses damage and store damage assessment so that it can be compared to other assessments, other incidents and other areas across military.

3. Engineers in home country analyze issue and form first solutions and calculate response deadline.

4. Requests are sent out to research institutes, universities, makers and engineering units in home country to analyze situation and submit their proposed solutions within 36 hours.

5. At testing area replicating the conditions in field and using blue and red equipment simulates attack and damage.

6. Proposed solutions are 3D printed and tested in home country.

7. Solutions are selected by votes and contests comprising of veterans, engineers and other researchers.

8. Solutions 3D printed and tested at Tier 1 facility, concurrently further testing is done at home.

9. Drones fly 3D prints to forward operating areas and combat units. FOB foundry 3D prints sand casts and foundry recycles used metals into new humvee parts.

10. Humvee parts are installed, 7 days after request is sent out soldiers have new and better vehicle. (Note: currently metal casting might take 5 days so with current technology it would take: 5 days test parts, 5 days final print, 3 days design, 2 days consultation=15 days) Current pricing on large 3D printed parts such as doors and bumpers will in metal extend into several thousand US. But, cost of import, transport of goods to forward operating area would level out these costs. Improvement in time would be the significant factor however.)

In this scenario with two forces fighting each other Red and Blue and only Blue using 3D printing then, all other things being the same, Blue will win. With a small investment of perhaps $50m (times 4 if you’re the US because of the fun procurement system) a military force could make its soldiers and their equipment responsive to the battlefield. Blue could iteratively over time improve all the tools of war to better fit the environment, better respond to threats and improve overall capability. By leveraging the science, design and engineering expertise in country 3D printing could be used as a real force multiplier not only by deploying the technology in a combat zone but also by allowing the best brains of a country to help the individual unit in a forward position. In such a way one could also crowdsource the war and involve the average citizen and people at home directly in the war effort.

All other things being equal, if Blue responds better to the marketplace of death that is war, then blue will win. By developing their kit quicker and fitting it more to the real world using 3D printing in a combat zone would formalize the individual warfigther’s time and tested bodging of their equipment but he would not have to do it alone. The minds & skills best and brightest of a particular country could be brought in to solve the problems of the soldier. In such a way 3D printing could be of great benefit to the militaries of the world.

They’ve known this for a while. Now its your turn.

Get through this post OK? There are more..

Bad testing kills, given enough eyeballs all things are shallow.

Mission Possible, full face masks.

3D printing a blank canvas.

The Sistine Chapel in an age of screens.

Dear HP, Brother and Seiko, please make a 3D printer.

Punished for producing quality.

Dieter Rams vs. Jony Ive.

3D printing verus Mass production, 1% of everything.


“Image credit, US Army RDECOM, Research Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s Advanced Design and Manufacturing. Richard Moore of Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s Advanced Design and Manufacturing, left, demonstrates the benefits of using additive manufacturing with Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commanding general, U.S. Army Accessions Command, center.”


See also Additive Manufacturing Consortium and Paramount Industries.

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  1. Bad testing kills & Given enough eyeballs all things are shallow. | VoxelFab - 29. Dec, 2012

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