Navy could soon use 3-D printers to manufacture drones and weapons

The first wave of tomorrow's wars may begin with a printout.

When U.S. Navy ships need to resupply ammunition and other essential equipment, they have to pull into port. But could the advent of 3-D printers cut out the middleman, allowing the military to literally print out weapons and other supplies?

Writing in the Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza says rapidly evolving technology may soon make 3-D printer warfare a reality.

“For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one,” Llenza writes. “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.”

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. After all, a college student recently made international headlines with his 3-D printer gun schematic. And just last week, NASA announced it had given a grant to a company working on a 3-D food printer. For its part, NASA has been at the forefront of 3-D printing, producing "mission ready" parts with the technology and even showing how 3-D printers can work in space.

As Extreme Tech’s Graham Templeton writes, 3-D printing presents some other fascinating future concepts of how military technology is used, and then potentially reused. “In terms of military efficiency, I think the next great step in automating war will be recycling. Will future soldiers be collecting their spent casings, not to protect the locals or the environment, but to be broken down and reused later? Could we turn a drone into a combat helmet into a plate of light-weight Humvee armor, as needed?”

And even as President Barack Obama announced his intention to scale back the military’s use of unmanned aerial drones, Llenza says 3-D printing would be ideal for creating a fleet of easily replaced drones for the Navy. There have already been some attempts at making 3-D printed drones, with varying degrees of success. And while Llenza acknowledges that the technology is still a ways off from becoming practical for everyday use, he says that day is not far off:

“The eventual goal is a drone that flies right out of the printer with electronics and motive power already in place,” he writes. “An organic ability to print replaceable drones from ships, forward operating bases or during disaster relief operations to serve as targets or observation platforms could be a huge enabler for sailors and Marines.”