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US army builds its own 3D printer

image captionThe US Army plans to build its own model rather than rely on devices made by Printrbot and others

The US military is working with 3D printers that can produce spare parts for spacecraft.

By putting 3D printers behind the front line it hopes to be able to produce spares more cheaply and quickly than it can get them from manufacturers.

It has been using a $695 (£436) model made by Printrbot which compares to the $3,000 (£1,880) cost of other machines.

The work is being carried out at the US Army's Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) in Alabama.

3D printers are gadgets that form objects by melting and shaping plastic into a design dictated by a data file. They are becoming increasingly common and many engineering and research firms use them for rapid prototyping.

"The ability to replicate parts quickly and cheaply is a huge benefit to the warfighter," said D Shannon Berry, an operations research analyst at the Future Warfare office, in a statement. Eventually, it is hoped the printer will find a larger role with US forces deployed overseas.

"Instead of needing a massive manufacturing logistics chain, a device that generates replacement parts is now small and light enough to be easily carried in a backpack or on a truck," he said.

The key reason to develop the printer, said Mr Berry, was to produce cheap spare parts for the sensitive instruments it develops. SMDC systems are typically deployed in space, but prototypes are tested terrestrially on drones and other small aircraft.

"Parts for these systems break frequently, and many of them are produced overseas, so there's a long lead time for replacement parts," he said. By developing its own 3D printer it could end reliance on manufacturers and speed up the replacement process.

SMDC engineers have already used the device to produce custom sensor housings and casings.

Even better, said Mr Berry, the device can even be used to fix itself if it breaks as many of its parts are built to be duplicable by 3D printers.

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