Early Signs that the Machines are Taking Over
A 3-D PRINTED drone is shot down by insurgents near a far-flung base manned by the U.S.
military. Within hours, a small lab dropped onto the base by a helicopter days before churns
out a replacement – along with plenty of ammunition and reinforced shelters for the troops. A
few miles off a nearby coastline, a naval ship-turned-factory harvests resources from the sea
and uses on-board printers to make everything from food to replacement organs.
It's a far-out vision for future combat, but at least one naval officer thinks it could happen.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza, who sketched out the scenario in the latest Armed
Forces Journal, 3-D printing could arguably "upend the way we think about supply chains,
sea basing and even maritime strategy." And by we, Llenza doesn't just mean Americans. The
Chinese military is already bragging about how they are printing parts for their next-gen
Aside from drones – which have already been printed – ammunition could potentially be
produced with the machines, as the casings would be "relatively easy," he writes. (The
Pentagon would just have to find a way to produce the propellants.) Additive manufacturing
also "offers a new way to think about building shelters or other structures on a beachhead or
forward operating base." The hope, as the theory goes, is that large-scale investments in 3-D
printing could take a lot of strain off the supply lines modern military forces depend on to
None of this amounts to the official position of the Pentagon, but publications like the Armed
Forces Journal serve as influential arenas where many theories and ideas from military
officers – some which are later incorporated – are first put up for debate. And it's no surprise
the potential (and existing) military uses of 3-D printers has been getting a lot of recent ink.
In April, Navy lieutenants Scott Cheney-Peters and Matthew Hipple sketched out a theoretical
future Navy in the widely read U.S. Naval Institute journal Proceedings that imagined ships
capable of harvesting the oceans for 3-D printing material, and floating factories capable of
manufacturing repair parts for a fleet of ships. Even shipyards, the authors wrote, could be
effectively converted into giant 3-D printers. Llenza, who is also a Senior Naval Fellow at the
non-partisan Atlantic Council, has taken that concept and run with it.