April 4, 2013

The 3D printing revolution will radically change naval construction and logistics, writes two junior Navy officers in Proceedings, the influential journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Navy lieutenants Scott Cheney-Peters and Matthew Hipple think that 3D printing will impact the Navy on designing and building everything, ranging from ships, submarines, aircraft to everything carried on board.

The development of 3D printers could change the way Navy build ships. "The production lines and shipyards of the future could be, in effect, enormous 3-D printers that would maximize the economies derived from the additive manufacturing process." they write.

It will not be necessary to carry large stocks of pre-manufactured parts. Intead of tracking down a repair part or seldom-used consumable, engineers could just scan the discarded part and send the schematics to the nearest 3D printer. The ship will only need to carry the necessary material for 3D printing, which saves a lot of space and weight.

Of course fill material will be required, but the Navy can experiment to determine the optimal amount and mix to carry on board to minimize weight. Further, since the materials will be in liquid or powder form, they can be stored in configurations that reduce excess void space from oddly shaped finished pieces and the packaging that protects them.

Furthermore all the data can be stored in the computer and upgraded when needed. The two writers envision that in the future shipboard additive manufacturing will be more than just printing repair parts. 3D printing will move the factory closer to the sailor: 3D printers could use shipboard recycled waste as material, and the Navy can even develop "concept of biomining — harvesting resources from the surrounding seas or ashore—perhaps with purpose-built 3D-printed vehicles." The ship design could also be changed that 3D printers will be integrated into it with supporting systems. And special medical 3D printers can be used for printing medical tools.

"Most of these ideas are visions of the future, in some cases quite far off, should they ever really come to pass. Along the way there are many challenges for industry and the Navy to overcome to take full advantage of additive manufacturing." they write.

The professional 3D printers and the materials are still very expensive, and printers can't yet build with every material. In addition, "the Navy will also need to determine who verifies that a printed copy meets military specifications, and how."

Since 3D printing brings to America's competitors the same opportunities it brings to the Navy. There will be new security challenges and the Navy will need to secure them against cyber threats as well. Added the writers.

But they believe:

It will take years, likely decades, to overcome all these challenges. But they will not stop the development and evolving opportunities afforded by 3D printers. One of the biggest tasks for the Navy will be to evaluate each new breakthrough's impact on the shifting economic calculus of consigning any one of the thousands of shipboard parts to print-on-demand status. Better understanding of the link between printer developments and new capabilities will allow the Navy to focus research resources to achieve them. The potential cost and capability benefits are enormous. Let the great experiment begin.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology


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