The Army can now 3D-print body armor on the fly

Military Tech

Cavalry scouts with the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division maneuver toward cover after an air assault during Platinum Lion 19 at Novo Selo Training Area, July 9, 2019

(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. True Thao)

Army researchers have devised a method to produce ceramic body armor, lightweight but strong, from a 3D printer. Except that 3D printers are meant to print out knickknacks, not flak jackets — which meant that engineers had to hack into the printer to get the job done.


Ceramic armor, light but hard, provides great protection but can also be difficult to manufacture, notably in combining materials to create a strong com composite. "For ceramics, that's a bit of a challenge because with you can't really do a one-step additive manufacturing process like you could if a metal or a polymer," said Lionel Vargas-Gonzalez, a researcher at the Army Research Laboratory.

Ceramic armor stops bullets by shattering them or reducing their penetrative ability, but this depends on how porous the ceramic is. Ceramic armor can achieve "something that's about 99 to 100 percent fully dense," Vargas-Gonzalez said, and that density is important because "porosity is one of the main deficiencies of ceramic armor when it comes to being able to withstand threats."

Vargas-Gonzales sees 3D printer ceramics as the "next avenue for armor because we're going to be able to, in theory, design armor in a way that we can attach multiple materials together into a single armor plate, and be able to provide ways for the armor to perform better than it can be just based on one material alone."

Even though it wasn't in the printer manufacturer's manual, Joshua Pelz, a materials science and engineering doctoral candidate at the University of California San Diego, figured out how to hack the printer.

"Two syringes containing distinct, viscous ceramic slurries are connected to a custom-made auger and print head," ARL said. "Pelz took advantage of his computer programming skills to hack into the 3D printer, tricking it into using its own fan controls to manipulate the ratio of materials being printed. He designed a custom auger and print head and even used the same 3D printer to create those parts."

Pelz says the 3D printing offers immense possibilities. "3D printing and additive manufacturing generally gives someone the ability to really design and create anything they want. It's a very quick process from thinking up a design, modeling that design and actually producing that design."

Yet the really interesting question isn't just what a 3D printer can produce, but who can produce it. If it's technically possible—and now legal in the United States—to print 3D guns, and it's also feasible to print ceramic armor, then the possibilities are immense.

But not necessarily for the better. Obviously, a military organization like the Army has access to specialized materials and expertise. Still, military technology tends to diffuse into civilian use. If someone can hack a 3D printer into churning out firearms and body armor, then they can effectively outfit a light infantry force (and let's not get into exotic items like drones or explosives).

3D printing is a democratization of technology that allows people to produce things that were once built in factories, and now produced in the garage. Guns and body armor included.

This article originally appeared on The National Interest.

More from The National Interest:

A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less

I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.

Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.

Read More Show Less

An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps

"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."

news
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.

At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.

Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.

"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."

She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."

It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.

The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.

But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.

The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

Read More Show Less