Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, right, holds a plastic deck drain cover printed aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex as Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (FMF) James Latimer explains the ship's 3-D printing project. (Navy)
When the the amphibious assault ship Essex got the fleet’s first 3-D printer last year, crew members were asked to test whether it could manufacture medical supplies aboard ships.
Since then the state-of-the-art printer has been pumping out a lot more than plastic scalpels, as ideas from junior sailors have it making everything from oil caps to screws and deck drain covers.
Essex got the printer for the fiscal year through the chief of naval operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, which picked up the idea from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency study looking at making surgical supplies at hard-to-reach outposts.
With a 3-D printer, you can “print the parts locally, on station, and then use them to do lifesaving surgeries,” Essex medical administration officer Lt. Tracy Lewis told Navy Times in a May 6 phone interview.
Those instruments are just for testing the printer’s abilities, though, because they can’t be sterilized like standard medical equipment, said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Tschanz, the ship’s lead medical officer.
However, Essex has spent several months now coming up with designs for some of the ship’s plastic odds and ends.
“When we got this, it was really not quite defined on what we could and could not do, so I kind of opened up the aperture here to figure out what we can do for shipboard applications,” Capt. Joker Jenkins, Essex’s commanding officer, said.
Machinery Repairman 3rd Class John Porter came up with the idea for a cap to put on lube oil holding tanks.
“Something that wasn’t pressurized, heated — just needed a cap,” he said. “It was easier to have it already set up on the printer, because it gets broken and messed up a lot.”
Rather than order a new box of caps and wait months for it to be flown out, a sailor could put in an order with the medical department and pick up the replacements the next day.
Five oil caps, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (FMF) James Latimer said, might take four hours to print.
In fact, Lewis added, most of the designs they’ve created have come from deck plates.
Chief Hull Maintenance Technician (SW/AW) Shaun Bentz, who works with the printer’s software, has been fielding sailor suggestions. Right now, he’s laying out cap designs for sound-powered phones and motor junction boxes. There’s also a design for a deck drain cover, which is usually made out of brass.
“I’ve been using examples throughout the ship, so I’ve just been taking measurements off something and implementing it into the program,” he said.
One of the most successful Essex projects, Lewis said, is already making life easier on the ship’s flight deck.
Lt. Chris Miller, the ship’s aircraft handler, used to have to special-order aircraft and silhouettes for his model flight deck, also known as a “Ouija board.”
“You can spend sometimes six months waiting for a silhouette to arrive,” he said. “In this application, if I need a representation for an aircraft such as an MV-22 [Osprey], I can simply ask the medical department, providing them the specs, the overhead silhouette, its dimensions, and they can fabricate as many of these shapes as I need.”
Miller said a specially ordered set costs around $7,000. The set printed on Essex cost about $250, Lewis said.
For now, the 3-D printer is limited to plastic, but that could change. Essex is working with a basic printer during this one-year pilot program, but in the future, the Navy could use more advanced printers that print using materials like metal, or even textiles or food.
Some printers can make molds to fill with metallic powder, Jenkins said, which would mean things like valves, gears and sterilizable medical instruments.
At about 3 feet wide, 3½ feet deep and 4 feet tall, the printer is about the size of a mini-fridge, Latimer said.
It takes two people to carry it, he added, but “its footprint is relatively small in comparison to the space it’s in right now,” he said. “We can kind of tuck it back in a corner, and it hasn’t impacted any of our space issues aboard ship.”
The raw materials are also less bulky than boxes of supplies, Lewis said.
“Instead of having a storeroom where you might have to have multiple of several different kinds of pieces on hand, now you can just have a few boxes of material, and you can just print what you need when you need it,” she said.