JUST IN: Navy Takes 3D Printer to Sea During RIMPAC Exercise
Sean Carberry photo
OAHU, Hawaii - The U.S. Navy-led Rim of the Pacific exercise is continuing in Southern California and Hawaii with 26 nations conducting naval, aerial and amphibious exercises to test their capabilities and interoperability. One ship is conducting a different test during RIMPAC — it is experimenting with 3D printing technology.
The USS Essex is the first Navy ship to sail with a 3D printer on board, and crew members are putting the Xerox ElemX liquid metal printer through its paces.
“The 3D printer adds a lot of value to shipboard use and aviation,” said Lt. Cdr. Nicholas Batista.
For example, common items like handles that open and close valves or wrenches for fire hoses wear out or go missing.
“And when you order it now — we're on the ship, we’re on the ocean — parts aren't easily accessible. We now have a machine that actually fabricates this on site to increase our overall material readiness,” he said.
“The military supply chain is among the most complex in the world and … sailors can now bypass that complexity and print parts when and where they need them,” said Tali Rosman, general manager of Xerox Elem Additive Solutions, in a company press release.
The printer, which has been on the market since February 2021, uses aluminum wire rather than powder, which Xerox said makes it safer and eliminates the need for protective gear when operating the printer. The company is touting it as “the ideal option for spares, repairs and low-volume production parts.”
The printer can fabricate parts in a matter of minutes or hours that could take months to obtain through the current process, Batista said. And they can make alterations, like adding location information into a wrench indicating where it belongs, “so we can reduce that risk of people taking it.”
They’ve had the system on board for a week and have been training with representatives from the manufacturer. “We're learning as we go because there was no special school provided,” Batista said.
While the sailors using the printer are excited by the potential, for now there are limitations or tradeoffs that will have to be addressed before there is widespread adoption on ships. One is the Xerox printer only works with aluminum, and many of the parts on the ship or the aircraft they service are steel, alloys, or polymers, Batista said.
For the printer to withstand the rigors of life at sea, it is housed in a 20- by 8-foot CONEX box that weighs 14,500 pounds.
“So real estate is a big key item here,” he added.
Because the ship is participating in RIMPAC, the cargo bay is not fully loaded. “So, therefore it allowed us to have a lot more real estate to put this CONEX box on,” Batista said.
But the size, weight and lack of mobility once it is on board will be difficult to manage on deployment, he added. Also, the container design doesn’t match up with the forklifts on board. The Essex crew provided feedback to the manufacturer about that.
“Another issue I would say as far as integration in ships is just power,” said Batista. The printer requires 440 volts and 100 amps, which isn’t common on all ships, he said. The Essex has that supply due to the aircraft it services.
The printer also uses large tanks of argon gas — meaning bulk and weight to keep it running. “One argon bottle can print for about 12 to 14 hours before you're changing the bottle out,” he added.
The printer also can’t do machining, such as making threads in nuts or bolts. “But we could make like a bolt-looking pattern and then bring it to the machine shop and have them thread it. So, we could use other shops to integrate with it together,” he said.
The printer isn’t game changing in its current form and capabilities, Batista said, but he thinks there is potential for a printer like the ElemX to become a fixture on ships.
“Now, this is a proof of concept to see if it can work,” he said, “Maybe in the future they can have this whole printer integrated inside of a work center.”