While homebrew plastic guns make headlines, one of the most powerful and deadly organizations in the world is using the same technology to build better weapons of mass destruction on the cheap.
Every technology casts a shadow. In the case of 3D printing, for every potentially benign use —like bioprinting organs—there is an unsettling opposite like printing guns at home. Now, the army is looking to use 3D printing to make the world a more dangerous place in at least one more way: building deadlier warheads.
The army has been developing its 3D printing capabilities for some time now, and has technology already nearly advanced enough to bioprint replacement skin on the battlefield. But the military isn’t just interested in saving lives—more often than not, it takes them. In its latest bid to kill more people, more efficiently, and at less cost, the army is planning to print warhead components, according to the latest issue of Army Technology.
“3D printing of warheads will allow us to have better design control and utilize geometries and patterns that previously could not be produced or manufactured,” James Zunino, a researcher at the Armament Research, Engineering and Design Center (ARDEC) in Picatinny, New Jersey, told Motherboard in an email.
The ability to print parts previously unimaginable using traditional manufacturing methods could radically open up the possibilities when it comes to what a warhead can do. For example, warheads using 3D-printed components could be designed to be more compact in order to pack in additional payloads, sensors, and safety mechanisms. Planning for printed parts in the design process will also allow the army to precisely engineer the blast radiuses of warheads for maximum effect.
“Warheads could be designed to meet specific mission requirements whether it is to improve safety to meet an Insensitive Munitions requirement, or it could have tailorable effects, better control, and be scalable to achieve desired lethality,” Zunino wrote.
As an organization with a shrinking budget—except when it comes to drones—the army weighs the cost of human life against that of building the instruments of its eventual liquidation. One cross-industry advantage of 3D printing is its cost-effectiveness since it enables the printing of complex structures in one go, instead of the many individual parts that go into it. Missiles are no different.
“3D printing also allows for integrating components together to add capabilities at reduced total life cycle costs,” Zunino explained. “It is expected that 3D printing will reduce life-cycle costs of certain items and make munitions more affordable in the long run through implementation of design for manufacturability, and capitalizing on the add capabilities that 3D printing and additive manufacturing can bring to munitions and warheads.”
The army doesn’t plan on stopping at merely printing warhead components, either. Eventually, they want to print the whole damn thing in one go. “Maybe someday an entire warhead or rocket could be produced as the technology further matures,” Zunino wrote.
So, there we have it. While comparatively small-scale dangers like homebrew plastic guns make headlines, one of the most powerful and deadly organizations in the world is using the same technology to build better weapons of mass destruction on the cheap.