Jan 15, 2016 | By Alec

Over the past few years, the military branches of various nations have been very interested in metal 3D printing as a cost and time saving manufacturing option, and the US has been no exception. While the US Army and Air Force having been looking at their own options, the US Navy has been particularly interested in getting 3D printers on board of warships with an eye on emergency repairs. In 2014, a metal 3D printer was installed on the USS Essex, with two more metal 3D printing experiments launching on board the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge just a few weeks ago.

However, those earliest experiments must have made an excellent impression on Navy engineers already, as DVIDS – the media source for the US military – just revealed that metal 3D printing has already been taken into operation in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) and Combat Direction Systems Activity (CDSA) Dam Neck, and is expanding across the Navy’s own scientific and engineering community. “We have a suite of varying 3D capabilities across the base,” said Ricky Moore, Lead Mechanical Engineer for NSWCDD's Disruptive Technologies Branch. “We are developing lessons learned with regard to fabrication and design.”

The impact of metal 3D printing is expected to be so significant, that the Navy even hosted a 3D Print-A-Thon back in December, to get experts and engineering talking about design guidelines and the technology’s capacity. “We are on the ground floor of 3-D printing,” NSWCDD Technical Director Dennis McLaughlin told the 3D Print-A-Thon’s participants at the time. “We need to move past the trinket stage and come up with examples that senior leaders can see. Let's come up with ideas for what else we can do.”

At the event, several experimental creations by the NSWCDD metal 3D printer – the first warfare center to be equipped with one of these machines – were also on display, showing just what can be expected in the near future. As was revealed, the Navy particularly sees metal 3D printing as a time and cost reduction tool that enables rapid deployment of equipment replacements. On display, among others, was a replica of a warship command center design console, and fleet layout models – which are currently still created by hand.

Even more impressive was the exhibited HexPod Robot, which is still in a development phase. It’s goal is to offer several advantages to warfighters, such as low-power movement through difficult terrain. An initial concept was turned into a full 3D printed prototype within just four weeks (which would normally take up to three or four months). Interestingly, the engineers made some quick weight-saving adjustments just 12 hours before the event, because they felt it was too heavy.

However, 3D printing with an eye on medical solutions is also being recognized. At the event, instrumentation engineer Kevin Streeff demonstrated how easy it was to make a 3D scan of an injured soldier. Not only could this be used to quickly make surgical models (a plastic bust was created on stage during the event), but more importantly it can be used for making custom cosmetic and corrective prosthetics, custom fit masks, and even face pieces – all with the help of quick 3D scanning and 3D printing.

On a more general note, 3D printing is seen as an in-the-field solution for equipment problems. “The ability to move additive manufacturing into the field would allow for equipment to be made on demand, reducing the overall footprint on the ground and dramatically increasing flexibility,” said Jason Phillips, an NSWCDD engineer in the Disruptive Technologies branch. 3D scanning of existing mechanical problems with the purpose of quickly manufacturing corrective parts is also being looked at.

In short, it seems like the navy is definitely working hard to realize a request by President Obama, who in 2013 called for 3D printing to revolutionize the way they make just about everything. Though some additive manufacturing options have been looked at by the NSWCDD for years, their 3D printing efforts only really got underway in 2013, when programs kicked off to use the technology to solve fleet problems. That same year, the Navy hosted the “Print-the-Fleet’ event to raise awareness for what the technology could do for them. While it might still take some time before the sailors start noticing changes in their daily lives, it is thus clearly being recognized as a legitimate tool for the near future.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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JF Parnell wrote at 5/3/2016 4:51:54 AM:

Bang on Mark. 3D printing, or as they love to call it "Additive Manufacturing" has it's place, but it is no panacea of manufacturing. The material properties, dimensional stability and accuracy just aren't there even on the most sophisticated systems. But there are those in the Navy that are hyping this technology to the fullest extent. This doesn't even take in to account who will do all the 3D modeling of the parts to be created. 3D scanning is a very labor intensive way to go about creating parametric models. It is way better than the old point cloud days, but it is by no means easy as point and shoot.

Mark wrote at 4/8/2016 9:03:34 PM:

Interesting article on the use of 3d printing technology. I see the application for prototyping and replacement of critical components, however I do not think we will reach the panacea of using this technology to replace bench stocks of traditional machined or manufactured parts. While the cost of printing small parts may be within an organizations budget, the cost for producing volumes of parts could bankrupt a business or organization. By shifting the production costs to the consumer they will lose the benefit of scale provided by mass production. Also, the operator will have to be able to quality control and inspect the produced parts to ensure compliance with any standards of performance. finally, the customer will need to have a variety of raw materials available for each part produced, again requiring a bench stock; possibly negating any initial savings.

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