Researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center wear many hats and create many products.
“We cover a range of items: field clothing, combat clothing, dress clothing, chem-bio protection, body-armor systems, gloves, hats, helmet covers and experimental garments using new textiles,” said Annette LaFleur, Design, Pattern and Prototype team leader.
The team uses a 2-D design program, and LaFleur is excited about the possibilities that 3-D printing capabilities hold for her industry, in general, and possibly for Soldiers.
“It could improve flexibility,” LaFleur said. “You could incorporate hard and soft materials together into one design. So, maybe you have some sort of clothing or protective item that has rigid areas that move into soft areas, where your body needs to flex. That could be really exciting because that is hard to accomplish with a regular textile.”
3-D printing would also eliminate or reduce the number of seams necessary to make a garment.
“The fewer seams you have, the more comfort you can achieve. Seams can cause a hot spot with rubbing,” LaFleur said. “Seams can cause discomfort in high heat and humidity, especially when you layer with body armor. Reducing seams on chem-bio gear would be huge.”
Ballistic materials could one day be incorporated into 3-D printing, allowing designers to produce shapes for armor and making it less expensive. The technology could also be used to make custom clothing or equipment.
“We could create something that is a totally perfect fit and reduce weight, maybe reduce bulk. A lot of the neat textiles that are being 3-D printed, even out of these synthetics, have a 3-D structure to them,” LaFleur said. “That makes you think about spacer-type materials where you have air flow, which is so important if our Soldiers are going to be somewhere hot again, whether it is jungle or desert.”
The nine-member team designs concepts and patterns for clothing and prototypes and relies heavily on computer-aided design, or CAD.
Designers can start from scratch, or they pull from NSRDEC’s extensive CAD archives of fielded, historical or experimental items.
“CAD is fundamental,” LaFleur said. “We can go into the CAD system and pull up a flat pattern. Say we are designing a new coverall. We already have an existing one that fits really well and that Soldiers like. We can go in and take off the design features like the collar or the cuffs, so you have a basic silhouette in a certain size, and start from there to design a new garment.”
The CAD system also contains more than 300 tools to alter patterns.
“We use the system to size out all the patterns to the different sizes and lengths that are needed,” she said. “We work really closely with the anthropometric group here to help determine what sizes are needed for different items.”
Although LaFleur is enthusiastic about the possibilities of 3-D-printing technology, she said human insight will always play an important role in the design process.
“I see 3-D printing as a tool,”LaFleur said. “Work processes have always evolved and changed, but you still need a designer to understand what’s possible.”