Traditionally, 3D printing has relied on materials like polymers and has been used primarily for prototyping. Now, researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory hope to develop strong and lightweight micro-composites that soldiers can use to 3D print devices on the spot.

The Field-Aided Laminar Composite process, or FALCom process, uses electric fields to align and orient particles within a polymer system at any location and desired orientation during the additive manufacturing of a 3D object. The process allows for a high degree of design freedom and is intended to make a variety of items, including unmanned aerial vehicles, medical devices and helmets.

“FALCom can be used to make multifunctional parts,” said Larry Holmes, principal investigator for the lab’s additive manufacturing material and technology development. “Anytime we can add multifunctionality, we are helping with space and weight savings. Embedded sensing, embedded heat-sinks and embedded electronics – all of these things help with trade space.”

Dr. Jaret Riddick, a team lead within the ARL Vehicle Technology Directorate, said the material properties must be well understood to serve as effective real parts as opposed to prototypes. “The actual process of 3D printing changes the properties,” Riddick said. “For some processes involving metals, the temperature, spot size where the printer’s laser points to melt the metal or the architecture, how the object is built one layer at a time, horizontally versus vertically, changes the material properties and performance.” One benefit of 3D printing is manipulating the dynamic response of the structures, shown through tests by Howard University researchers for the Army Research Office.

“We’re planning to ultimately reduce maintenance and logistics burdens by being able to deploy the capability to produce the products for repair on-the-spot, rather than transporting them from far-off locations,” Riddick said.