5 Exciting Applications of 3D Printing in the Navy18 May 2023
Image Credit: Michael Afonso via Unsplash
In the United States, the Biden Administration is heavily investing into any solutions to secure the U.S. manufacturing supply chain, with measures heavily supported by Congress and backed by the Department of Defense. As a result, many companies are now taking advantage of these funds and pioneering innovations in on-site manufacturing to ensure the security of supply chains.
In fact, switching away from traditional means of provisioning metal parts in shipbuilding, and toward advanced manufacturing techniques, may be the only way to solve supply chain issues in the Navy, right now and as we head toward the future.
This is the view of Matt Sermon, the executive director of the US Navy’s Program Executive Office, Strategic Submarines. He asserts that the challenges to meet demand will be tough: over the next decade, there could be a labor shortfall of 100,000 workers in the Navy’s submarine program alone. In order to address some of these challenges and to reduce lead times for parts, Sermon advocates for AM, with 3D printers operational for six metals that are most useful to submarine applications.
1. On-Demand, Onboard Spare Parts
Traditional means of casting and forging metals to produce parts has served naval forces since the beginning of maritime warfare around 2,000 years ago.
However, the future is in additively-produced parts, thanks in part to the technology’s fast lead times and the reduced need for storage onboard vessels.
Matt Sermon, the leading voice for manufacturing solutions in the U.S. Navy, states in no uncertain terms that additive manufacturing is a necessity in order for the Navy to fulfil its promises on ship and submarine building.
While manufacturing suppliers are being trained to work more efficiently, this won’t cut it in the long run in a mature sector plagued with obsolescence, according to Sermon:
“I earnestly believe that metallic additive manufacturing is the path to the capability and capacity you need for critical materials in the submarine industrial base. And that same holds true for surface ships, and its systems, and for sustainment as well.”
Spare parts is a key area that onboard 3D printers are being employed to help out in. The consequence is that lost or broken parts can be manufactured on the spot, eliminating the need to wait weeks or months to receive replacements from elsewhere.
2. 3D Printed Plumbing
Back in 2018, NAVSEA, the Naval Sea Systems Command of the United States, approved technical standards for 3D printing for use in Naval contexts.
A 3D-printed metal part, namely a piping assembly, was produced offsite by Newport News Shipbuilding (NSS) and then installed into the USS Harry S. Truman in January 2019, as a proof of concept.
NSS has since been approved to produce other assemblies for use in aircraft carriers, submarines, and other platforms.
For instance, another vessel, the USS New Hampshire Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, has installed a 3D printer. This is namely a Markforged X7 “field edition” printer, able to produce polymer-based parts, including from carbon fiber-reinforced nylon. Such a facility will be used to produce parts for pipe leak maintenance and electric enclosures.
Metal additive manufacturing can also be used to produce large titanium castings, which are key in the production of high-performance centrifugal pumps. Titanium is a valuable metal to the Navy, boasting exceptional resistance to corrosion, yet the large castings to be used in centrifugal pumps have to be produced offshore, leading to high lead times and increased reliance on foreign powers.
Luckily, AM technologies have become quite capable in producing complex parts made from titanium. IperionX is the contractor being employed to produce the parts this way. Its ARPA-backed technology is even able to recycle titanium scrap, with builds being made from up to 100% recycled scrap. This, combined with 100% U.S.-sourced titanium raw materials, allows for a “closed-loop” manufacturing process, yielding a fully home-grown manufacturing process, from start to finish.
3. Shipping Container Manufacturing
The very first metal additive manufacturing machine installed on a U.S. Navy vessel was the Xerox ElemX liquid metal 3D printer. The printer was installed aboard the USS Essex, and came delivered in a standard shipping container.
A fully self-contained mobile print shop is exactly the type of use case of 3D printing that the armed forces are pursuing, since on-demand parts, be they spare parts for machinery or even medical supplies, can be produced on-site and without the need for storage of redundant end-parts that may go unused. Such an on-demand method of manufacturing cuts lead times and costs, but also crucially cuts down on the volume of payload, which can be crucial in a vessel with limited storage space.
Capt. Jeremy Gray, the Naval Postgraduate School’s Surface Warfare Chair for COMNAVSURFPAC, praised the idea, stating that “The ElemX effort not only demonstrated the technology in shipboard research use cases, but created a self-contained, mobile 3D metal printshop by outfitting a common shipping container that can be put on any ship.”
And the military use cases don’t stop at the Navy: Capt. Gray added “[They can be] plugged into any power source, such as a field generator so Marines can also have that capability.”
Just like the Xerox 3D printer itself, a modular, mobile design to an entire self-contained manufacturing unit would be game-changing in terms of fast on-site delivery of critical components.
Capt. Paul Burkhart, Bataan’s executive officer, welcomed the innovation: “Instead of having to order the whole, large assembly, and wait for it to get delivered wherever we are in the world, we just manufacture the sub-component or part that’s required, especially if it’s something we don’t normally carry.”
4. Reduced Lead Times at Shipyards
According to Matt Sermon, coordinating the supply chain in order to produce parts in a timely manner is getting more and more difficult for Naval shipbuilding yards. Just six materials account for 70% of late materials. These materials have a complex metallurgy, and it is increasingly seen to be the problem that legacy OEMs are also having issues scaling their operations due to the smaller basis of manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand.
With additive, success has been seen with one-off parts, including one example of a highly complex reactor component being successfully produced and certified.
That said, progress is not as quick as one might hope. The two main bottlenecks that shipbuilders are running into when it comes to expanding their use of additive manufacturing in their process are scale and certification.
Additionally, the challenges of codifying the certification process is plaguing the application. With a manufacturing technique that has as-yet seen few uses in the sector, getting a military-grade stamp of approval is proving cumbersome.
However, once these problems are overcome, AM could save the day when it comes to the construction of submarines. For instance, the old Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines that are still in use will reach the end of their service some time between 2027 and 2040, and the task of replacing them is already proving troublesome. Though production is ramping up, the present industrial framework is already struggling with the workload.
The additive manufacturing of heavy metal parts, asserts Vice Adm. Bill Galinis, will help keep the Columbia submarine-building program on schedule and get the Virginia-class program back on track.
5. Entire 3D-Printed Ships
Finally, AM has the potential to be harnessed not only to produce mere parts of naval vessels, but to build them whole and complete.
Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), one of the foremost shipbuilders in the United States, aims to leverage the technology in order to build CVN-80, the Navy’s “first 3D-printed ship”.
Of course, the typical process of shipbuilding involves an immeasurably complex process, with disparate fabrication (often offshore) and then assembly of an uncountable number of components.
Harnessing the benefits of additive manufacturing, such as increased design flexibility, reduced material waste, and improved production efficiency, the CVN-80 is due to be delivered to the Navy in 2028. In the meantime, however, HII’s hope is that testing and standard-setting can be accelerated by demonstrating the successes of 3D printing on smaller components, eventually culminating in a full build.
One such example of where 3D printing saved the day was by accelerating the time to produce a crucial (unknown) component – one that the entire build depended on, and that would have only been available after the strict Navy deadlines per legacy manufacturing methods. The Navy team managed to design, print, machine and approve this crucial component all in the space of four months, versus the legacy method’s eight months.
“I’m not going to tell you what part,” said Brian Fields, HII’s vice president of USS Enterprise, “but I’ll tell you that you’d be shocked if you knew where this part was. It was a very critical part to the ship.”
If HII successfully achieves its goal of constructing CVN-80 as the Navy’s first 3D-printed ship, it would mark a significant achievement not only for HII but also for the wider shipbuilding industry. The successful completion of such a project would validate the viability of 3D printing in large-scale naval construction and potentially pave the way for the adoption of additive manufacturing in future naval projects.
Charting the Course for the Future of Naval Production
While traditional manufacturing methods have served the Navy well for centuries, they are becoming increasingly strained by contemporary challenges. Shortages in labor, issues in supply chain security, and lengthy lead times all point towards the need for a fresh approach.
Additive Manufacturing (AM) could be this solution, with its potential to revolutionize naval manufacturing through on-demand, onboard parts production, the creation of complex components, and even the prospect of building entire ships.
However, the leap from potential to reality is fraught with challenges. AM technology currently faces barriers of scale, struggling to transition from small, one-off parts to larger, mass-produced items. The certification process too is a hurdle, with the relatively new and untested technology finding it difficult to obtain military-grade approval.
Despite these bottlenecks, the promise of AM is too great to ignore. To fully realize this potential, concerted efforts are required from both public and private sectors to advance AM technology, streamline certification processes, and establish robust standards. If these hurdles can be overcome, AM may redefine naval manufacturing, heralding a more secure, efficient, and resilient era for U.S. manufacturing.
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