Navy Must Go All In on Additive Manufacturing, Official Says
The traditional means of making metal parts by casting and forging has served humankind well for the past 2,600 years or so, but additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is the future, at least as far as the Navy is concerned, a senior service leader said.
The sea service has made some headlines lately installing 3D printers aboard ships, which allows sailors to make lost or broken parts on the spot without having to wait weeks or months to have replacements delivered.
That is a positive development, said Matt Sermon, executive director of the strategic submarines program executive office.
However, he predicted that ship manufacturers and their suppliers will have to make the switch from the traditional means of making metal parts to these advanced manufacturing techniques. It is the only way to solve the Navy’s current and future supply chain issues, he said.
“I earnestly believe that metallic additive manufacturing is the path to the capability and capacity you need for critical materials in the submarine industrial base. And that same holds true for surface ships, and its systems, and for sustainment as well,” he said recently at the American Society of Naval Engineers annual conference in Arlington, Virginia.
For Sermon — who has emerged as a leading voice in the Navy on reviving the nation’s manufacturing capacity — additive manufacturing is not something on a wish list, but a necessity if the service is to deliver all the ships and submarines it plans on building in the coming years.
There are current supply chain issues for parts made of heavy metals through casting and forging. The Navy is working with suppliers to train workers and make them more efficient, but that won’t be enough in the coming years, Sermon said.
The submarine sector alone is aiming to produce three boats per year, two Virginia-class subs and one Columbia class. Then there are modernization and sustainment programs.
“There is a war for talent. In particular, I'm talking about the manufacturing workforce,” Sermon said.
Between the Navy, the major shipbuilders and their approximately 17,000 suppliers, there will be a shortage of some 100,000 workers on submarine programs over the next decade, the Navy estimated.
“We are in the fight today, investing in those market sectors, working with vendors to help on their human resources side, their workforce pipeline, those kinds of things,” Sermon said. But when the Navy looks at its future manufacturing demands, it doesn’t see having the capacity needed, he said.
As for the technology readiness level for the new systems needed to build the submarines, the Navy is doing fine. But when it comes to manufacturing readiness levels, the outlook is not as good, he added.
The program executive office for strategic submarines has a database of about 5,500 parts it tracks. The surface ship community has a similar catalogue. Six different metals — which he declined to name publicly — account for most of those items, many of them valves, fittings and fasteners.
The Navy is beginning to acquire 3D printers for these heavy metals, Sermon said. According to his estimates, the technology has the potential to radically reduce delivery times for new parts.
“Eighty percent reduction in schedule for components that we need in shipyards, for components that we need in new construction, is not unrealistic,” he said. Estimates for some components are as high as 95 percent, and others in the 50 or 60 percent range depending on the type of machine, he said. “But in general, 80 percent is not out of the question,” he added.
Last October, the Navy — and contractor Austal USA — cut the ribbon on the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Danville, Virginia, which brought all the service’s related programs under one roof.
The consortium operating there will develop qualified part recipes that will transition to industry for serial production, an Austal USA statement said. It will also focus on exploiting advanced manufacturing for distributed production, working to bring new entrants to the submarine industrial base while also supporting forward-leaning casting foundries looking to adopt the processes to bolster their production volume.
The center is already attracting industry to the region.
In February, additive manufacturer IperionX announced that it was partnering with Carver Pump to 3D print titanium pump components for the Navy. Its new facility will be located about 25 miles from the Navy’s Danville hub, a press release from the companies stated.
Titanium is prized by the Navy for its exceptional corrosion resistance and is used extensively across all major pump applications, with titanium components typically manufactured via titanium casting methods, the statement said.
Carver will design the titanium pump components, guide IperionX on prototyping, and lead the qualification of these components for the Navy. IperionX will provide its patented 3D printer and titanium powders. Some of the scrap it will recycle will come from the Navy, it noted.
“The [United States] has no domestic capacity to manufacture the large titanium castings required for high performance centrifugal pumps,” the statement said.
This has led to long lead times for new pump components sourced from a foreign-controlled supply chain that exploits high cost and carbon intensive titanium metal.
Sermon said the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence has ordered “a number of” 3D printing machines and the first was scheduled to arrive in Danville in February. Deliveries will continue throughout the year.
The goal is to have 3D printers up and running for the six most important metals by March 2024 and produce five additively manufactured parts that will go on submarines this year, he said.
The center will also be doing some fundamental academic research that is still needed for some steel alloys that are not yet ready for 3D printing, he added.
“It's an aggressive goal, I acknowledge, but by March 2024 we will be at maturity in those six materials and be putting them on ships and submarines,” he said.
Meanwhile, Naval Sea Systems Command has developed additive manufacturing processes for more than 500 approved parts used in ships and submarines.
Doug Arnold, director of the marine engineering directorate at Naval Sea Systems Command, said most printers aboard submarines and ships out to sea are using polymers rather than metals.
Sailors have used them to print everything from broken door handles to patches on pipes.
While a couple of metallic printers are on Navy ships, sailing with them aboard is still being studied, he said.
“It's really the manufacturing readiness level and understanding the risk level that we're willing to accept to be able to put these metallic additive manufacturing components on board a ship,” he said.
And there is the matter of certifying that 3D manufactured parts are dependable. There are volumes of data and information on forged and cast metal parts that have been in use for decades, but additive manufacturing is relatively new, he added.
Another issue is developing the technical data packages, he said.
“How do we make sure the technical data packages are correct so we make sure that we get the right components that are good for the ship, fit for purpose and then be able to maybe take those data packages and make them available for other organizations?” he said, acknowledging that some vendors will want to maintain their intellectual property.
Sermon said: “We have to bring our famous, our real incredible and amazing technical rigor to the new technologies.”
Rear Adm. Jason Lloyd, chief engineer and deputy commander for naval sea systems engineering and logistics, said the potential benefits for 3D printing metal parts aboard ships at sea “is just huge.”
The first metal 3D printer went aboard a Navy ship last summer and the second will go aboard an amphibious ship soon.
“We've been in the storming, norming, performing cycle. We've been in the ‘storming’ for many years, and we're now at the ‘norming,’” he said.
If sailors need a part, they can contact Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock in Maryland to see if they have the technical data package for the part on file. If they don’t, engineers there might develop data packages and transmit them back to the ship. If the ship has the same 3D printer, the sailors can create the part while under way, Lloyd said.
He cited a recent incident where a ship at sea with a polymer printer had a critical pipe leak and no way to fix it. The sailors printed a polymer patch that worked perfectly fine until they could get back to a port and do a permanent repair.
“We have ingenious sailors out there. And if you put this technology in their hands they will go and run with it,” Lloyd said.
Arnold said the next step is training. There has been a lot of time, effort and funding to get the Naval Surface Warfare Centers up to speed on additive manufacturing technology, but little training in terms of the young engineers serving aboard ships.
Sermon said the push to spread additive manufacturing in the Navy will have to come from the top.
The Navy didn’t have a peer competitor for many years and didn’t take risks. But that’s not the case anymore, he said.
“We're going to go learn lessons. Are we going to make mistakes? Absolutely. Just like everybody makes mistakes developing earlier technologies, right? But we're going to do it as safely as we can with our product,” he said.