U.S. Army researchers have devised a method to produce ceramic body armor, lightweight but strong, from a 3-D printer. Except that 3-D printers are meant to print out knickknacks, not flak jackets. Which meant that engineers had to hack into the printer to get the job done.
Ceramic armor, light but hard, provides great protection but can also be difficult to manufacture, notably in combining materials to create a strong com composite. “For ceramics, that’s a bit of a challenge because with you can’t really do a one-step additive manufacturing process like you could if a metal or a polymer,” said Lionel Vargas-Gonzalez, a researcher at the Army Research Laboratory.
Ceramic armor stops bullets by shattering them or reducing their penetrative ability, but this depends on how porous the ceramic is. Ceramic armor can achieve “something that’s about 99 to 100 percent fully dense,” Vargas-Gonzalez said, and that density is important because “porosity is one of the main deficiencies of ceramic armor when it comes to being able to withstand threats.”
Vargas-Gonzales sees 3-D printer ceramics as the “next avenue for armor because we’re going to be able to, in theory, design armor in a way that we can attach multiple materials together into a single armor plate, and be able to provide ways for the armor to perform better than it can be just based on one material alone.”