US Military to Have 3D-Printing Factories in Shipping Containers

The special military-edition 3D printer will be able to print more than 20 different materials into desired tools.
Fabienne Lang
Part of ExOne's shipping containerThe ExOne Company

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contracted the global leader in industrial sand and metal 3D printers, The ExOne Company, to develop a self-contained 3D-printing "factory" that operates from a shipping container. 

The $1.6 million contract aims to create more rugged, portable 3D-printing facilities that can be deployed whenever they're needed for a wide variety of military-focused purposes, such as producing spare components.

The 3D-printing pods will be housed in regular shipping containers up to 40 feet (12 meters) long, will be easy and quick to deploy, and won't require a huge amount of technical knowledge to maneuver. In order to do so, ExOne is developing a "military edition" of its binder jet 3D-printing technology.

US Military to Have 3D-Printing Factories in Shipping Containers
ExOne and the DOD's upcoming 3D-printing container. Source: The ExOne Company

ExOne's upcoming military version will still be able to print using over 20 different metal, ceramic, or composite materials, but will be more rugged, with specific body style and other military-specific features. 

So as to get the containers up and running more quickly, ExOne is outsourcing a number of partners for the project; the long list includes Dynovas, an expert in materials, engineering, composites production, and weapons, as well as Applied Composites - San Diego, a provider of composite parts, assemblies, tooling, and engineering of aerospace, military, and space sectors. 

"Binder jet 3D printing is a critical manufacturing technology for military use because of its speed, flexibility of materials, and ease of use," said John Hartner, ExOne’s CEO in a statement. 

"We’re excited to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Defense and other partners to make our 3D printers more rugged for the military, which will also benefit our other manufacturing customers. Most importantly, we know that years from now, our technology will play an important role in filling critical needs quickly."

Different uses for 3D-printing on-the-ground

By creating such on-site 3D-printing facilities, issues arising from crises can be fixed as quickly as possible, and at a lower cost. What can sometimes take weeks or months for spare parts of damaged military tools to arrive, can now be ready in mere hours.

Shipping containers are being repurposed as homes, and shelters when natural disasters strike; 3D-printing is also gathering speed around the world for its various uses. Both are seeing more and more uses in the military, too. 

The DOD and ExOne's contract isn't the first of its kind; the U.S. has been talking about such uses for a while now, and the U.S. Marines even had their own 3D-printing container, the X-FAB. What's more, the Dutch Navy recently unveiled its 3D-printing collapsible shipping container to print spare parts.

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