Jan.6, 2014

Researchers at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, a military research and manufacturing facility, are using additive manufacturing and 3D printing to print electronics, weapon components, and training models.

The Army has been making use of 3D printing technologies for a few years. In 2014 the Pentagon will be dabbling more in 3D printing. Their new step is to employ 3D electronic printing that could allow antennas to be printed onto a helmet or sensors into clothing – as well as the wing of an unmanned aerial vehicle to be printed in a single print job.

Researchers use an ink-jet printer and current-conducting inks, such as silver, to print electronics. This process allows engineers to potentially print sensors directly onto a weapon or an article of clothing. For instance, a radio antenna made of silver nanoparticles printed onto a flexible polyimide substrate could be embedded into a Soldier's helmet, replacing the antenna that currently attaches to the headgear. Or, electronics could be printed on the side of artillery, freeing up space inside the round.

Potential benefits from the research include smaller, lighter electronics, less waste, and the ability to produce items on the spot.

"Instead of having to machine out the groves and put the sensor and the wires in the model, I can just use our printers to print electronics onto the model so they are already embedded," said James Zunino, co-chair of the Materials Engineer and Printed Electronics, Energetic, Materials & Sensors at Picatinny.

"With printed electronics versus conventional you're not chemically etching away all the material, you're printing them the way you want them. It's more environmentally friendly, it's more cost effective, and it's more time efficient."

The electronics could also be outfitted with reactive sensors, such as sensors that change properties in the presence of anthrax to detect and warn of the chemical's presence.

On a larger scale, the engineers are also able to embedded wires and printed electronics into the wings of a UAV as they are created on the 3D printer. Previously, there was no way to create a UAV wing out of one sheet of metal because the holes for wiring are so intricate. But with 3D printing, engineers can place all the holes while the piece is being created.

"You can print UAV wings with the electronics, antennas and sensors in it so that when you're done it's all embedded in one encapsulated system," Zunino said.

With 3D printing items can be printed in a matter of minutes or hours depending on the complexity of the design. This makes it ideal for prototyping and low-rate production.

"I could try out a design on a 3D printer using a cheaper material," Zunino said. "Once I know it works and my holes are good, I can go print it on a metals printer that uses stainless steel or titanium. So it's a good cost savings, because you don't want to buy metal in bulk. We can try different types of materials. 3D printing allows us to inexpensively test the same design in several different materials and see how they perform."

3D printing to help soldiers

In the near future, Picatinny scientists hope they will be able to print and assemble entire weapon systems in one manufacturing cube. For example, an entire claymore mine could be printed and assembled in one machine by using various tools and printing processes.

"Ideally we would have the Soldiers have their own 3D printers in the field so that they could make their own part to hold them over until we send them the part. Normally, if they broke a bracket, it could take two or three weeks to replace it."

To understand more about 3D printing electronics, watch below a video that researchers at SI2 Technologies, a company in North Billerica, Mass. that received federal DARPA funding to create solutions, showing its ability to print electrically conductive ink, creating circuitry on curved surfaces, for example on the inside of a soldiers helmet, in order to collect data and detect when a soldier has been exposed to conditions that might cause a brain injury.

"Soldiers helmets are already fairly heavy. So any additional weight could be problematic," said Erik Handy, principal scientist at SI2 Technologies. "Adding some neural intelligence without significant weight is a huge benefit."


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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