Navy Ponders Utility of Bringing 3D Printers Aboard Ships

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

There may soon be a day when 3D printers are standard pieces of equipment aboard ships at sea, technologists said April 8 at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference.

Unlike traditional manufacturing processes that take a raw material and subtract from it, additive manufacturing — another term for 3D printing — creates an object by adding layers of a substance. This can often be a polymer or a metal, but scientists have started to attempt to create human organs and food employing the technology as well.

The possibilities for the Navy are limitless, said Thomas Campbell, associate director for outreach at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

"When I got involved in 3D printing about four or five years ago, I could more or less keep up with everything in this space. I can't [anymore]," Campbell said April 8 during a 3D printing panel at the conference in National Harbor, Md.

Already a number of defense and aerospace contractors have begun incorporating 3D printing into their designs. Three-D printed parts can be found on Lockheed Martin's Juno spacecraft and Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet.

There is great promise in additive manufacturing and healthcare, Campbell said. If a sailor experiences an emergency at sea and needs a new liver immediately, it is possible that future 3D printers could simply print out the organ, which would allow a life to be saved without hindering the mission, he said.

Already the Navy is working on a number of projects through its Naval Additive Manufacturing Technology Interchange initiative, said Rear Adm. Paul Verrastro with the office of the chief of naval operations. Twenty-five groups under its auspices are studying and testing various aspects of 3D printing that could be used on ships, submarines, in the air and more, he said.

"This is a disruptive technology," said Verrastro. "We are very excited about this space."

One possible use could include 3D-printed unmanned aerial aircraft. They could be disposable, cheap and used for a variety of purposes including combat, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said Navy Lt. Ben Kohlman, a founding member of the CNO's rapid innovation cell, an initiative that allows junior leaders to identify and field emerging technologies.

They could be useful in a future sea battle, Kohlman said. He envisioned a situation where sailors were able to print out "hundreds and hundreds" of drones aboard a ship and inundate an enemy vessel before it could strike.

Additive manufacturing could also be used to print out ship parts on the fly, Kohlman said. A 3D-printed part could be used temporarily until the ship was able to make it to port to replace it with a traditionally manufactured piece.

While 3D printing on board a vessel is still in its early stages, it faces a number of challenges, said Cmdr. Tyson Weinert, manager of the Coast Guard innovation program. Just printing on board a moving ship can be a problem given lull and shifting centers of gravity, he said.

Ensuring quality is also necessary, Verrastro said. "Safety has to be paramount, qualifications and certifications [are needed]."

Large, advanced printers can cost more than $1 million dollars, while smaller ones can cost as little $1,000. As these prices fall, more people and organizations will adopt the technology, Verrastro said.

The Navy can use this "generation of new ideas" from artists, hobbyists and students to see how additive manufacturing can better be applied to Navy needs, he said.

"I think we are at an inflection point here as the price of the printers goes down," said Verrastro. "It is just going to be a booming space."

Topics: Health Affairs, Combat Medicine, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology, Shipbuilding

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