One day a 3D printer, using a mix of materials, will be able to create body armor for U.S. soldiers that is more lightweight and stronger than anything could be made with traditional manufacturing and materials today.
That's the word from researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who are working to revolutionize 3D printing, as well as the way that companies build products ranging from jet engines and satellites to football helmets.
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Scientists at the laboratory, a federally funded center in Livermore, Calif., that focuses on national security research, are working on architecting new materials to be used in a process called additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, and developing a technique for building multiple materials into the same product.
They're also studying the physics and chemistry at the base of the process in order to better understand how manufactured parts will stand up to conditions such as heat and stress, so they can predict a product's behaviors and performance.
Their research could provide critical information to any company building parts for machines ranging from automobile engines to planes, satellites and spacecraft.
"It's going to revolutionize manufacturing," said Eric Duoss, a materials scientist and engineer at the lab. "It's going to revolutionize it in terms of manufacturing itself. It's about the ability to tailor properties and achieve property combinations that would have been previously impossible to create."
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is the process of creating a three-dimensional object by laying down successive layers of material. The technology has received wide media attention over the past year with 3D printers that build handguns, phone parts and toothbrushes among other things.
Duoss emphasized that the work they're doing won't change the landscape of 3D printing, but it will change the way many companies think about creating their products.
"Hopefully it will be a new way of manufacturing with a lot more possibilities and less cost, time and real estate needed to manufacture things," he said.
Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner Inc., said many universities and labs are working on 3D printing, but Lawrence Livermore has the resources to push the technology ahead.
"The key is that this opens the door for designers to create items that were not possible before," Basiliere said. "Engineers and designers would have another set of tools that enable them to be more creative in coming up with a product."