Center for Strategic Communication

For years, the military has worked on exoskeletons to help turn soldiers into heavy-lifting cyborgs. Now with the first civilian exoskeleton manufactured using a 3-D printer, the budding robosuit industry may someday get a little more DIY. If the military gets in on the trend, it means that soldiers could one day make their own combat exoskeletons using desktop computers.

The 3D-printed exoskeleton (seen above) is not exactly a super-suit — it’s designed for a toddler and is about as sophisticated as a swing-arm desk lamp — and human-assisted limbs are not new. But like other tools that once required complex manufacturing, there’s now another device you can imagine printing yourself.

Engineers at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Philadelphia used a 3-D printer to make a lightweight plastic exoskeleton for a 2-year-old girl named Emma Lavalle, who was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis. Her condition — which weakened her muscles and joints — prevented Lavalle from lifting her arms. She couldn’t feed herself, and was too weak to lift a toy.

A video from 3-D printing company Stratasys, though partly an advertisement, is stunning. Lavalle, who was too small to be fitted with a conventional metal exoskeleton, was equipped with plastic “magic arms” attached to a suit fitted around her body. The suit was light enough for her to carry, and gave her enough augmented strength for her to lift her arms all on her own. The suit can also be customized. As Lavalle grows, the suit can be upgraded with newer printed parts.

The exoskeleton also seems the furthest thing away from the military’s plans to build advanced exoskeletons for years to help soldiers carry heavier cargo and lug around more gear. There’s Lockheed Martin’s Human Universal Load Carrier exoskeleton, or HULC. Raytheon has a wearable robot called the XOS 2. And the Pentagon’s mad scientist research agency Darpa has been kicking around the idea of creating biomechanical underwear. Yet, Lavalle’s story could be instructive.

It would mean combining those plans with the Pentagon’s search for 3-D printers. Last year, the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) sought to buy one. In May, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate solicited proposals from universities for an additive manufacturing institute. “Additive manufacturing” is industry terminology for the printing machines. If the Air Force finds a partner, the service could end up spending $60 million on additive research.

But what would the military actually want with 3-D printers? Many uses would likely be mundane, such as printing out spare parts for everyday equipment and doing so relatively quickly and cheaply. The Air Force, for instance, already prints up replacement parts for older aircraft, though the Air Force’s printers are obviously more advanced than those in the domestic market. Physicians at Walter Reed Army Medical Center use 3-D printers to model prosthetic body parts to help guide reconstructive surgeries. The Army Corps of Engineers has used 3-D printers to make topographic maps. Other purposes are more far-off and experimental, like the Navy’s proposal to use the printers to build swarms of micro-robots.

“I could certainly imagine a field hospital in Afghanistan having a 3-D printer on hand to manufacture syringes, tourniquets, etc.,” Jesse Waites tells Danger Room. Waites, a former medical technician and Air Force nurse, and now a Boston-area programmer and technology activist, thinks wider adoption of 3-D printers — and exoskeletons — is inevitable for both the military and the civilian world. But these civilian exoskeletons, Waites adds, would be used for “just regular civilian life.” They could be used by firefighters and dockworkers, to help the wheelchair-bound walk, and as preventive medical measures to make sure you don’t throw out your back.

Still, that could be scary. It’s already possible to use a printer to build a homemade rifle. A 24-year-old Frenchman named Emmanuel Gilloz designed a carrying case small enough to lug around a 3-D printer. On a long enough timeline, this could mean civilians carrying around a portable exoskeleton (or weapons) factory in a box.

For the military, it could mean using the printers to repair or tweak exoskeleton components. “It’s almost very much like Iron Man has different suits for different occasions,” Waites says. Need to replace a spare part or customize your armored exoskeleton? Or need a new one? “You would be able to print yourself out some kind of specialized body armor for the rest of the team in the unit; certainly advantageous,” he added.

For trauma surgery patients, that could include printed endoskeletons. In other words, printed body parts and replacement limbs. A soldier who loses a right femur in an improvised explosive attack could have his or her left femur scanned, flipped around on a computer, and then printed out. In Feburary, a transplant patient in the Netherlands became the first recipient of a printed jaw.

Stratasys, meanwhile, has been working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use 3-D printers for manufacturing robotic hands, according to Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing for Stratasys. The hands are being developed with heat sensors — so you can sense the heat from a cup of coffee — and integrated passageways to stimulate joint movement. If the Pentagon takes interest, it could mean printed hands for wounded soldiers.

Next thing you know, people will be printing them at home along with do-it-yourself exoskeletal suits.