Gun enthusiasts began showing off their designs for 3-D printed weapons last year. Now, the U.S. military is taking that technology to the next level with plans to digitally print warheads.

While the U.S. Army has experimented with 3-D printing technology for multiple purposes — such as healing soldiers with 3-D printed skin and building specialized helmets with tracking sensors — Army researchers now want to embrace additive manufacturing to improve their logistics chain and the development of weapons warheads.

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Shown above: A cutaway of an Mk46 CR warhead. The Army’s Armament Research, Engineering and Design Center is looking to use 3-D printing technology to maximize the effectiveness and minimize cost to develop the weapons of the future (Image source: OkieBoat)

“3-D 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, said in Motherboard.

Because 3-D printers can produce metallic shapes — like zigzag channels or holes with cylinders — that are nearly impossible or incredibly expensive for machine tools to create, the additive process opens up a world of possibilities for design engineers. Warhead creators focus on creating blast effects that meet specific criteria: They may want blast fragments of specific sizes to radiate in specific directions so the blast will effectively destroy the desired target, and 3-D printing opens doors to an entirely new set of designs.

“Once you get into detonation physics you open up a whole new universe,” Zunino said.

Designing and printing a full warhead is still a few years off, but as they move in that direction the Army is focused on securing the ability to print metal parts that are suitable to replace current weapons parts and pieces.

“We’ve made a lot of parts and prototypes,” Zunino said in an interview with ARDEC public affairs. “In theory, if you have a certified operator, certified materials and a certified printer, you can make qualified parts.”

Additive manufacturing is a process where successive layers of material are added or laid down in different shapes, rather than conventional, subtractive processes that might include cutting, drilling, etching and carving out of material to create a design.

The Army is embracing the concept of additive manufacturing of metals — which is often accomplished with help from laser-induced heat, dubbed sintering, which bonds metal particles together to form the object being printed — because that process can allow for smaller parts, a bigger payload or more security measures, according to Zunino.

“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 told Motherboard.

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James Zunino, a researcher at the Armament Research, Engineering and Design Center holds up a piece of metal printed with an additive 3D process. Zunino says 3-D technology can open doors for the creative process in warhead development (Image source: U.S. Army/Erin Usawicz)

But the Army knows they aren’t the only ones making these breakthroughs.

“Additive manufacturing has the strong potential to increase the military’s agility and efficiency but this is not exclusive to America,” said Dr. Jeffrey Zabinsky, chief of ARL Materials and Manufacturing Science Division.

He stressed that 3-D printing may also provide adversaries with capabilities they haven’t been able to capitalize on — yet.

“We will need to close the gaps and stay several steps ahead of our adversaries,” Zabinsky said.

(H/T: Daily Dot)

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