Call for Input: Establishing the 3-D Printing Beachhead

Scott Cheney-Peters and I had the chance to join Ben Kohlmann, of Distruptive Thinkers, and the U.S. Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC), for a conference call on 3-D printing‘s potential in the fleet. The conver sation, in terms both of research beforehand and its execution, was quite informative for we two amateurs.

A Beachhead… On The Beach:

The challenges of 3-D printing will define the nature of its deployment.  One problem I arrived upon after some research for the talk was the potential issue with stability.  One of the potentially most useful technologies for ships, Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) uses layers of metal dust layered meticulously one-over-the-other as an object is produced.  Despite my earlier enthusiasm for putting 3-D printers on everything – from destroyers to cruiser to potentially even larger ships – some may be inappropriate as platforms for a process that will depend on precision due to their instability. No one wants to destroy 30 hours of work on a pump body with one good roll from sudden heavy seas.  This makes shoreside facilities the most appealing venue for 3-D printing’s initial beachhead.

Critical Questions:

To build a better catalog of stakeholders for NWDC and to get critical technical advice, I’ve been contacting the fleet’s Regional Maintenance Centers and some assorted other support facilities for input.  However, our community here at CIMSEC is just as rich in professional expertise, experience, and insight.  Therefore, we’re hoping to leverage the input of you, our readers, just as we’ve been able to build off the expertise of the others working on this issue.  Here are our questions:

Help us fill in the 3D printing blanks!
                                                            Help us fill in the 3-D printing blanks!

1.) What kind of maintenance problems are most frustrating, that involve mass part replacements or high-fail items?

2.) Which kinds of parts are hardest to find or build?  Are there any small-to-medium-sized parts that you’ve found expensive or difficult to replace? 

3.) If so, what materials are they made out of?  We are particularly interested in mono-material items.

4.) Is there anything the Intermediate Maintenance Activities (IMA) can’t do that 3-D printing might facilitate beyond merely producing new parts?

Scott has brought up other challenges with 3-D printing: the quality and limitations of usable materials, training and operations, and certification of the printed products for use (due to variability of quality).  These administrative and manning details are worth considering as well if you have additional input, concerns, or suggestions.  One particularly helpful IMA head suggested that the Navy’s many CNC-mill operators already have the technical knowledge to operate 3-D printers.  Some of the solutions for figuring out how to best use these technologies as they mature may well involve just realigning existing capabilities.  

Welcome to Sequestration: Making the Business Case

The story of one particularly frustrated program office head reminded me that sequestration will have a real effect on a potential roll out.  While we once may have said, “millions for defense but not one cent for tribute,” we must now pay tribute to our financial constraints.  The objective is to find the greatest savings or capability margin that 3-D printings can give us.

The business case is absolutely critical to this technology being taken seriously.  There will be no grand LCS-style science project.  If the best answer is a Portabee or Replicator 2 reproducing broken belt clips, buckles, and assorted other tertiary gear, so be it.  While we’d love to roll in a 900K duel-laser DMLS machine to print whole pump bodies, the likelihood that such funding is available is marginal… unless the case can be made for it.  Being able to replace GTE turbine-blades on demand would be a nice trick.  If we can certify it for commercial aircraft and human skulls, maybe it won’t be so hard to certify for load-bearing use.  However, clearly laying out the advantages in flexibility, cost, and time that 3-D printing could create over the short- and long-term, and the viable procedures for leveraging those advantages, are the keys to making a prototype deployment of 3-D printers a reality.

Engineers talk to CIMSEC about what they want from 3-D Printing.
          We need to tame our untrammeled enthusiasm with marketable practicality.


We look to you, CIMSEC members and friends, to help us push this project forward.  If you know likely interested parties, let me know.  If you have a solid business case, or problem that 3-D printing could solve, write and submit your findings to the editorial board.  Of course, you can always comment below to add to the conversation.  We think 3-D printing is likely to be a valuable step forward in the Navy’s future, and a few non-engineer amateurs can only go so far.  

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

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