The U.S. Army's Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) recently revealed that it had successfully 3-D printed almost all of the components for a grenade launcher. The launcher, based on the iconic M203, is called the Rapid Additively Manufactured Ballistics Ordnance ("additive manufacturing" is a formal term for 3-D printing).
Yes, that's right: R.A.M.B.O.
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Their taste in names might be questionable, but the ARDEC team pulled together some impressive technology to produce the new weapon. That included something called direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), which uses high-powered lasers to weld components out of powdered metal. They even 3-D printed several components of the weapon's ammunition, though that didn't include actual explosives.
Though the test was intended as a proof of concept for the use of 3-D printing for both prototyping and production of weapons, the impact seems likely to be far greater in the laboratory than on the battlefield. A single grenade launcher reportedly took 70 hours to print, and 5 hours of assembly and finishing, all using fairly advanced and specialized equipment. It's unlikely 3D printing at that speed, even done close to the theater of battle, could get weapons into soldiers' hands faster than mass production and the Army's advanced logistics network.
The bigger promise comes in the ability to swiftly iterate weapon designs for testing, since prototypes can be produced without conventional factory tooling. In this case, the R.A.M.B.O. team was able to experiment with a variety of materials, body designs, and processes for the printed grenade cartridge components.
Of course, there’s an uncomfortable corollary here. The proliferation of inexpensive 3-D printing and precision milling equipment has already given us 3-D printed handguns and untraceable automatic weapons. If the Army can 3-D print a grenade launcher, then those outside of the military might give it a try, too.
According to ARDEC, their weapon was test-fired in October. After firing 15 shots, it showed no signs of degradation, and produced muzzle velocities within 5% of a standard grenade launcher's.