• 09.05.12

3-D Printing Comes To The Battlefield, And To Your Garage

3-D printing isn’t just for tech geeks anymore. Now it’s being used by everyone from car enthusiasts to members of the military as a low-cost manufacturing alternative.

As the government breaks ground on the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a $70 million public-private scheme to industrialize 3-D printing, the hope is the U.S. can once again compete in low-cost manufacturing.


But 3-D printing–which involves building objects by printing and layering molten plastic and other materials–promises not only to re-shore capacity. It could also help decentralize it by bringing manufacturing to remote areas, and by allowing us to make things in our own homes.

For example: the military is using 3-D printing facilities on the battlefield to reduce the time it takes to fix faulty equipment. According to, the Army has deployed several 20-foot shipping containers with advanced prototyping machines. Engineers recently fabricated an adaptor and power cable, improving the battery life of a hand-held mine detection device.

3-D printing is already becoming popular among car enthusiasts to make hard-to-find replacement parts. By combining a 3-D scanner with a 3-D printer, it’s possible to craft a plastic mould that can be used to manufacture a part, or even to make a metal part directly.

Another example is Printrbot. Backed last year on Kickstarter to the tune of $830,828, the start-up is one of several companies trying to make 3-D printing affordable for the masses. Inventor Brook Drumm recently started shipping the first units to 35 backers who pledged $750 and more.

3-D printers could also be used to manufacture parts at sea, or models at the North Pole. One day, then, we may look back on large factories as relics of a bygone age.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.