Three-dimensional printing is changing the way the Army treats injuries and builds bombs, and now the technology is poised to revolutionize how soldiers are fed. 3D printing will allow the Army to print food on demand, from pasta to pizza, and tailor its nutritional content to an individual soldier's needs.
Feeding thousands of soldiers in the wilderness of a far-flung battlefield has never been an easy task. The food served to Army personnel needs to be unspoiled, nutritious, and reasonably tasty. For decades, soldiers have dined on Army-supplied Meals, Ready to Eat, but MREs are usually pretty unappetizing and limited to 24 options like "beef taco filling" served in a tinfoil bag. You couldn't even get a pizza until last year when Army researchers developed a groundbreaking pizza that stays fresh for three years.
But 3D printing could change that. While most current methods for 3D printing food pile layers of nutritional goo on top of each other, the Army is looking to use ultrasonic agglomeration, which binds particles together by shooting ultrasonic waves at them. This approach, explained Army Magazine in its July issue, affords them great flexibility when it comes to printing varied meals—adding some additional options to the menu.
"You would like a sandwich, where I would like ravioli. You would print what you want and eliminate wasted food," Mary Scerra, an Army food technologist at the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Massachusetts, told Defense One.
Even more importantly, 3D printing could for engineered meals tailored to individual soldier's needs. "If you are lacking in a nutrient, you could add that nutrient. If you were lacking protein, you could add meat to a pizza," Lauren Oleksyk, an NSRDEC researcher, told Army Magazine.
Right now, researchers at NSRDEC are focusing on producing small snacks with the technology, but soon they'll be able to print more complex meals like pasta.
Someday, meals could even be printed by troops on the ground, on-demand, using ingredients they come across in the field. In other words, it's entirely possible that future soldiers will print their own meals in the middle of a warzone.
"We are thinking as troops move forward, we could provide a process or a compact printer that would allow Soldiers to print food on demand using ingredients that are provided to them, or even that they could forage for," Oleksyk told Army Magazine. "This is looking far into the future."
So far, the Army's experimentation with 3D printing is morally nebulous: It ranges from promising applications like printing replacement skin for wounded soldiers, to eminently concerning ones, as in the case of printing warheads.
But the military advances in the field of food printing could be particularly impactful for the public, if the technology breaks into the commercial sphere, as military tech so often does.
Food printing technology has already advanced quickly in the consumer sector since the first commercial 3D printer able to serve up dinner was released last year. Printed food itself has become more appetizing in leaps and bounds. The first attempts at using additive manufacturing to build something you can eat resulted in a mushy paste. Now, we can print food that actually looks like beautiful, delicious food.
It's a familiar conversation in households with kids: Johnny wants a hot dog for dinner and Jane wants spaghetti. Imagine being able to serve up both in a matter of seconds, with each meal tailored to Johnny's iron deficiency and Jane's celiac disease. It sounds far-fetched, but that's exactly what the Army is working on. Cheap, personalized, and nutritious food from a printer could be on its way to the battlefield, and the home, very soon.