Battlefield Science: 3D-printed supplies

Word is that the US military is walking on 3D printing technologies for use on the battlefield…to print food for its soldiers.

It sounds like the technology in question has already been tested and proven in the civilian context, but that the military is working on adapting and customizing the same technology for battlefield use.

While 3D printing food has implications for all kinds of innovation, not least down the road as a survival technology, e.g. enabling distressed soldiers or civilians to harvest edible supplies in their environment and have the machine produce complex foodstuffs from them (once sufficient miniaturization advancements have been performed), the current applications are most interesting for supply chain innovations and cost savings here and now. After all, if it’s possible to provide a group of soldiers in the field the same basic ingredients in bulk and rely on their machine to churn out the necessary supplies (with water added, presumably), it saves all the effort and cost of shipping processed, individualized food halfway around the world to sustain an army.

Following the old adage that an army marches on its stomach, this is nothing short of revolutionary. If portable, sturdy 3D printing of food is achieved, it allows units to become fully self-sustaining, packs potentially lighter (as water makes up most of the weight in food), supply chains shorter, and costs exponentially lower. It adds new meaning to the concept of lightweight, high-speed, sustainable warfare.

And the craziest thing? The technology is (almost) already here.

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NASA’s 3D Printed Rocketry – Just Really Cool

Meanwhile, in the realm of real science, NASA has taken advantage of 3D Printing (not the prosumer/hobbyist kind, mind you!) to develop and test new rocket parts. This is exciting for the acceleration it brings to the innovation cycle and the promise it has to lower the costs of rocket-building in future. It’s true that this is still an early-stage application, but it represents a sea change in the cost model and a potential further democratization of the spaceflight process. In other words, NASA’s 3D printing initiative has the promise to make rocket-building cheaper, technological development faster, and production more readily scalable than would be possible otherwise.

Additionally, of course, it brings AutoCAD that much closer to cool, which is actually pretty important. Hell, if this had been happening while I was in high school I might have become an engineer.