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3-D printers will create parts and gear for sailors

Jun. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Md., made a fabricated model of the hospital ship USNS Comfort on Jan. 10.
Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Md., made a fabricated model of the hospital ship USNS Comfort on Jan. 10. (Navy)
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The Navy will start to experiment with 3-D printing later this year by setting up printers in Norfolk, Va., and San Diego to produce custom-designed plastic parts and gadgets that crews can use. Examples include small parts like clips, brackets and gas caps.

But the service envisions future applications for the technology, such as building ammunition. And even further out? Anything from pizza to a new kidney.

Sure, these possibilities may be a long way off, if they ever happen, but more practical applications are already underway.

“It’s starting small and starting simple,” said Lt. Ben Kohlmann of the upcoming trial, which he is preparing for at Navy Warfare Development Command in Norfolk. And now that the Navy is trying this revolutionary manufacturing process, it’s looking for your ideas about how to use it.

“The real solutions will come from the deck plates as we unveil this and a sailor says, ‘Hey, this is a part I think I might want printed,’” said Kohlmann, a Hornet pilot who’s become an expert in 3-D printing at NWDC and is overseeing the fleet experiment.

Additive manufacturing, as this process is also known, is designed to rapidly field parts on demand using materials such as metal, rubber and plastic. It is one of industry’s most promising and quickly evolving corners. Industrial sites in the military are starting to experiment with it — for instance, aviation supply depots are using it to make castings for parts no longer sold and naval engineers are using it to build ship models. Surgeons are using it to produce prosthetic limbs that match the dimensions of the limb it is replacing.

Contractors, similarly, are increasingly using the technology to build parts for the latest fighters, and the head researcher at the Office of Naval Research recentlygave it a ringing endorsement, saying it had unlimited potential for the Navy.

The purpose of the NWDC experiment is to see if and how the fleet could use this. One idea: a custom target for ships to use in gunnery exercises. The officials hope to hear many more ideas like this.

“If half the things fail and don’t work, that’s fine,” Kohlmann said. “We’re trying to find the realm of the possible with sailor ideas. So we want those crazy ideas that may or may not work.”

How it works

The 3-D printing experiment is the brainchild of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, or “Cric” as its members affectionately call it — a band of about 15 junior officers and enlisted tasked with bringing out-of-the-box and “disruptive” ideas to the fleet as rapidly as possible. Formed nine months ago, the group’s upcoming experiment is likely to be one of the first ways the deck plates encounter their handiwork.

Let’s say you need an unusual part not offered in the supply system. The first step would be to take it to the 3-D printing center in Norfolk or San Diego, where a civilian technician will see if the design for the part exists. If not, he can create a 3-D “point cloud” model.

“That point cloud of literally millions of individual points they can smooth and shape to the exact shape that they want,” said Kohlmann, who added that this will allow sailors to “create parts that are specific to a specific ship.”

A 3-D graphic will appear onscreen and the sailor will verify it’s correct. If it is, the technician will hit the “print” button and, in about five hours, the part will be ready for pickup. The sailor can then inspect the part and test to see that it fits right. If it doesn’t, the part can be reshaped and printed again.

Officials hope to create an electronic database of specific widgets and thingamajigs that sailors often need. They’re also asking supply officers on amphibious assault ships for suggestions.

“They’re compiling a list of the things that could be printed,” Kohlmann said, “and once they have those in place, we’re going to talk to our technologist and see how it matches up with the materials they can print.”

The printers are expected to be in place for testing by November. The machines will work with plastic and may be able to work with rubber, making it possible to design gaskets — a part always in demand with snipes. The trial is likely to start by December, Kohlmann said.

What it could do

Before the fleet becomes a veritable 3-D print shop, there are a lot of technological leaps required. The machines must be able to produce items that match the intended design consistently and stand up to military specifications. Right now, metal printing requires heavy-duty infrastructure not easily shifted onto a ship, Kohlmann said. And fashioning objects out of multiple materials remains at the cutting edge and very expensive.

Even if all these steps are figured out, the Navy still confronts another challenge: copyright. Manufacturers retain the intellectual property rights for their products, which is one reason that the fleet’s upcoming experiment will only reproduce parts without patents or that are no longer produced.

“The Navy hasn’t bought the intellectual property rights to any of its parts since the mid-1980s,” wrote Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza in a May article in Armed Forces Journal, a Navy Times sister publication. “In order to print parts, we’d have to buy the designs, likely at great cost (though we could scan them, which would open another can of legal worms).”

Llenza, a naval flight officer and current fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, argues that the Navy needs to harness this emerging technology and offers a number of ways that it could revolutionize warfare. In his AFJ essay, he suggests that submarine tenders and other Military Sealift Command ships could become “floating factories” capable of printing on demand. Other possibilities: printing warfare implements, from ammunition to an armed drone that “flies right out of the printer”; or beachmasters using a giant printer to pour concrete for beachhead structures.

Some concepts are borderline science fiction. Llenza, for instance, suggests the possibilities of one day printing a sailor’s chow or even printing new organs from human tissue. Those may be a long way from today’s Navy, but innovators around the fleet, like Llenza, are starting modest experiments now that they hope to scale up.

“I think there is some capability in the near-term, two or three years down the road, to having some of these facilities in forward-deployed locations,” said Kohlmann, who ticked off possible locations like Guam, Bahrain and Japan. But the eventual hope, perhaps decades away, is to send 3-D printing to sea.

“What we envision is having an additive manufacturing facility aboard a carrier and they’re forward-deployed, [in an anti-access, area-denial] environment,” Kohlmann said. “If they somehow get their logistics chain cut off, they have the ability to organically create materials, both plastic and metal, whatever they want, for the battle group that they’re supporting.”

In the meantime, advocates have modest aims. Consider a gas cap, a simple part that can be tough to come by. Kohlmann recounted a case where a crew member on a forward-deployed minesweeper ordered one through the parts system. The $7 part took weeks and hundreds of dollars to be shipped, Kohlmann said, adding that this was exactly the type of problem that 3-D printers could solve.

“Well, if you could print that part on the waterfront within a day, those type of capabilities would be pretty influential,” he said. “That’s what our goal is.”

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