Bulletproof Iron Man suits for the military and the police could be on the horizon following the development of 3D printed body armour that can be tailored to fit any body shape.
The futuristic armour has been devised by Loughborough University in conjunction with the Home Office and Ministry of Defence (MOD). The armour is created using a 3D printer that rapidly deposits thin layers of heat-resistant fibres together to create a protective panel that can slot into military and police vests.
"The future vision is to take someone's scan data and map this protective geometry around," said Dr Andrew Johnson, lecturer in product design at Loughborough University.
He said it could resemble the body suit worn by Robert Downey Jnr in the 2008 superhero film. "You could have a high level of protection around the torso around the area where they are moving around. It could protect against slash and blunt-force trauma," he added.
The £100,000 project has seen the team successfully test its kit in the lab and researchers are hoping to receive more funding to trial it in the field.
The material showed "significant improvement" in protection when tested against a specially-engineered knife and a 9mm bullet fired from 16ft away at a velocity of 400 yards per second.
The refinements mean officers wearing the vests would be less likely to incur blunt trauma from a bullet or blade. Dr Tom Payne, a senior scientist involved in the project from the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, said the gear could also solve the issue of "heavy or inflexible" clothing currently used by law enforcement professionals.
"We are looking for innovation that will be able to change that," he said.
"We don't perceive this [3D-printed armour] will be on all officers' backs in the next five to 10 years.
"But it could be a different way for body armour to be used."
The Ministry of Defence has been searching for ways to provide lightweight armour that can replace ill-fitting equipment in the field and reduce injuries.
It recently introduced Virtus, a lighter set of protective goggles, kneepads, vests and helmets for soldiers, following complaints from troops who claimed they struggled to get off the ground while fighting because of their gear.
Troops also said the kit did not have enough room for all their equipment and was difficult to put on at night.