Sea Control discusses 3D printing this week with James Lambeth from the Navy’s Dam Neck facility and… almost, James Zunino, of Picatinny Arsenal in NJ (if the computer hadn’t eaten the audio). In the latter case, we go over some of the broad-strokes. From simple part adapters for ships to painted-on radios for soldiers to the pains of product certification, we cover what’s going on in two military 3D printing facilities trying to push their new capabilities out to the force.
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.
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:
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.
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, although he wishes they did.
Last Spring, the guys at CIMSEC wrote a series on how 3-D printing would revolutionize naval logistics. Their vision is much closer to reality than science fiction. The nexus of on-demand fabrication and unmanned vehicles was recently demonstrated in small scale at a venue where one would least expect to see cutting edge military concepts tested. In another example of performance art-turned dual-use UAS military application, at the Burning Man Festival this year, a social entrepreneurship project called Blue Sky allowed visitors to scan an image of themselves, sculpt a miniature likeness of the person with a 3D printer, and deliver it to the consignee with an experimental octo-rotor UAV. Despite challenges with wind, dust, and safety, the proof of concept demonstration was a success.
The ability to print and deliver parts on demand locally and rapidly deliver them to forward operating forces will greatly streamline naval supply chains. Last December, the Marine Corps VMU-1 squadron began logistics deliveries to remote combat outposts in Afghanistan with an unmanned version of the K-Max dual rotor helicopter. A contracted manned K-Max variant had previously flown thousands of logistics missions for U.S. Navy ships during the 1990s. The Marines’ two unmanned K-Max vehicles delivered more than a million pounds of cargo between December and May and have were so successful the trials have been extended until 30 September.
Reprinted with permission from navaldrones.com
5th and final post in our series on 3D printing.
3D printing revolutionizes the supply chain by removing the need for many specific parts, but it still lacks true independence due to the need for “toner.” If necessary, a soldier in the field can pick up the weapon of his neutralized enemy and use it to continue the fight, but the wreckage of war is often left to rot, useless for more than cover. However, the great material waste found in war can generate immense new capabilities when combined with 3D printing’s need for raw materials.
In the further future, the commander’s greatest source of raw materials for his new 3D printing capability will be the wreckage of the battlefield and waste from his own operations. Everything from the valuable copper in rubble to the wreckage of destroyed vehicles. In most cases, materials can be collected whole: tanks, humvees, burnt-out trucks, bullet casings. Obsolete or worn equipment can be harvested for its raw materials and re-forged into new product. Modern composite weapons can be smashed, damaged, or past their service life; thrown back into the “stock material,” and recycled into a new rifle. Battlefield clearance, broken weapons, and ruined equipment stop being a hindrance and start becoming potential resources for the commander armed with 3D printing.
Whatever cannot be easily ground down and re-purposed can be leached out and re-used. Biomining is the process by which natural and engineered bacteria are used to collect raw material. Industrial-scale use of bacteria to make product is not revolutionary. Beer is the oldest, and perhaps most delicious example that comes to mind for the industrial use of bacteria. Soon we might start using it for fuel. Biomining is already used to leach minerals from low-grade ores, it could potentially salvage materials from rubble or severely degraded equipment.
The direct applications to maritime operations are especially evident for landing operations and damage control. Amphibious landings are always made more precarious by the supply situation, logistics’ tenuous reach to a force on the shore that could potentially be pushed into the sea. With the ability to re-purpose his surrounding environment: cars, computers, telephone wires, etc… a landing force no longer need wait for guns, vehicles, parts, or replacement equipment when these things can be resurrected from wreckage or indigenous infrastructure. At sea, battle-damaged ships can re-forge equipment out of the destroyed material. Imagine if the USS COLE had a 3D printing capability, giving it the ability to replace without restriction any number of critical systems. These ideas only scratch the surface. As the logistics, shape, and field operations of all military forces profoundly transform, not only will our weapons change, but the way we fight will transform with this newfound flexibility and independence.
In this post I’ll examine the impact on fleet logistics, complications that must be worked out, and the likely uses at sea.
As Matt Hipple pointed out, 3D printing has the potential to affect U.S. Navy logistics by accelerating repair time; reducing costs from excess parts, personnel, and facilities; and reducing costs by transporting raw materials instead of parts – or purchasing the materials at the destination.
This new type of manufacturing will also require new contracting business models. Whether the U.S. Navy maintains its own shore-side printing facilities, which I anticipate as likely in order to hone and develop its engineers’ skills, or just incorporates them into ship design, it will need to reach agreement on payment with the companies who design the parts. One likely model is that used in software licensing – either paying per each copy or for each machine that uses the design. This model can also be used aboard commercial vessels and at commercial shipyard facilities. All designs will be easily accessible via a local database, updatable at sea.
Not every part might be more economically manufactured on an as-needed basis. High-volume, heavy use items such as fluorescent light tubes or paper might still be cheaper off the production line. It also might not make sense to carry every rare raw material needed in parts with low rates of failure. Even then, if a failure does occur, printed stand-in parts might allow equipment to function at reduced capacity until a true replacement can be installed.
For a good many items, however, raw material rather than finished products will be the bulk stock under logistics specialists’ care. This in itself won’t free up too much space as the stocked components are essentially still carried on-board, just in a broken-down form, but it will affect the design of storage areas and reduce excess void space from oddly shaped or packaged pieces (goodbye Styrofoam peanuts and bubble-wrap!). This likewise will impact what supply ships carry, how they are designed, and how they conduct replenishments at sea. It also leads to the interesting potential of self-resupply through mining or reclamation – either through intermediary specialized ships, or through new types of drones. Matt Hipple will expound on this further in a future post.
At some stage, designers will begin to build ships with 3D printers embedded aboard. They will need to determine which type is best suited for shipboard use and what core raw materials to keep aboard. They may determine a different type is best for each of the multiple potential uses. What I anticipate are multiple printers in key locations. In addition to the obvious ship supply and machinist shops, repair lockers might see smaller desktop versions that can quickly churn out custom-fitted shoring or patching. The raw material may be distributed via a centralized system or fed locally.
Meanwhile on the messdeck, and in the chief’s mess and wardroom, sailors might soon chow down on printed food, an already demonstrated capability. This could be especially useful for ships with smaller crews with less ability to support a large cooking staff, and could potentially allow a great variety of meal options (though there’s no accounting for taste…). While Matt predicted the printing of human tissue and organs for medical emergencies if current research bears out in the future, this is probably a feature fleets will install only on larger ships or with large medical staffs, as very few personnel would not otherwise get the necessary care from medical evacuations.
Initial 3D printer testing could involve a few simple commercial off-the-shelf devices to determine potential uses and problems, but it will be a long road to shipboard integration. New Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC) codes and perhaps even new rates will be needed to fill the technically demanding field of maintaining, operating, and just plain experimenting with the printers. However, the sooner fleets and shipbuilders start looking at the advantages and uses of this remarkable new field, the sooner they can reap their benefits.
Third in our series on 3D printing.
The U.S. may not have much capability to launch humans into space these days, but in many other ways we are moving towards the sort of future envisioned in the likes of such sci-fi mainstays as Star Trek (if you are just joining this blog – I am in fact somewhat of a nerd). In our smartphones we have a close approximation to the series’ tricorders and communicators, able translate, record data, communicate and scan items. Researchers are even developing the device’s medical scanning functions as apps and add-ons. Elsewhere energy weapons and rail guns are taking shape in the labs of the U.S. military. Even the underlying science behind the series’ most fantastic device of all – transporters, able to instantaneously transmit matter and people from one location to another thousands of miles away – may have been discovered with the recent breakthroughs in quantum entanglement. So it should come as no surprise that another of the series’ future tech is already progressing through very real early stages of development, that of the replicator.
In this 3rd installment in our series on 3D printing - also known as additive manufacturing – I lay out my own thoughts on how this very real technology is impacting and will impact shipbuilding and design, particularly for the U.S. Navy.
“We’re Gonna Need a Lighter Boat”
3D printing will revolutionize the way every piece of equipment for a navy is built, and this starts at the design stage with a focus on decreasing a ship’s weight. First, the way parts can be created using 3D printing, building components as a whole rather than requiring further assembly later, allows designers to mimic the intricate internal structures found in nature to develop extremely strong parts while using lighter materials such as carbon fiber in place of steel. Second, components created a piece at a time in a traditional factory typically require additions like brackets and flanges for handling and for surfaces to bolt or weld the pieces together. Third, designers can create more rounded shapes for system components such as ducting and piping. This not only allows internal ship systems to operate more efficiently, as the rounded shapes are much more conducive to fluid flow than elbow-shaped pipes and ducts stamped out in a traditional factory, but again will decrease weight by eliminating unnecessary system volume. The Economist reports the Navy is already using “a number of printed parts such as air ducts” in F-18s for these very reasons.
As maritime professionals know, lighter does not mean weaker, but does mean faster. It also means cost savings from decreased fuel consumption, and increased operational range – less reliance on oilers and brief stops for fuel.
Heavy Metal Savings
3D printing can bring down costs in other ways. The material savings of additive manufacturing can be enormous. According to The Economist, while traditional manufacturers of parts requiring high-grade metals such as titanium for aircraft can see up to 90% of the costly material cut away and wasted, researchers at EADS show the use of titanium powder to print the parts uses only 10% of the raw material.
3D printers can similarly reduce the costs of creating prototypes in comparison with traditional methods, and because they can make the prototypes much more quickly they allow designers more time to experiment with models of everything from valve handles to hull forms.
After the printer is purchased or built, the cost to customize an item or completely switch production is primarily only the labor cost of the design change and the difference in the material. The potential savings are huge to customers such as shipbuilders and navies, where constant updates, upgrades, and requirement changes would otherwise lead to cost overruns.
I’ll Take a Cruiser in Pink
Where does this lead us? In the short-term there will still be many high-volume, high-use parts that vary little and are cheaper to make using traditional methods. But as 3D printers replace assembly lines, ever more complicated 3D printers that can produce greater portions of a finished vessel or aircraft will make their mark on the fleets of the future. Sooner than you think shipyards’ production halls may be transformed into large 3D printer complexes able to print the hull and major superstructure pieces, leveraging the ability to create highly complex internal structures and designs to bring down weight and cost.
As most of the ship design and production is nowadays done by defense contractors, sailors may be less aware of these impacts of 3D printing on their experience at sea. In the next post in our series, I respond to Matt Hipple’s and take a look at the much more direct impacts of 3D printing on life at sea, including the potential to shift supply and production from ashore to afloat.
Photo: US Navy
Second in our series on 3D printing.
The laser engraver is a staple of ship life. Nametags, space identifiers, and last-minute commemorative plaques can be made within moments. Engraving is a refreshingly quick process in a world of requisition forms, funding codes, mismatched part numbers, and drawn-out waiting periods. However, stateroom labels that conspicuously misspell the ship’s latin motto - as mine did – are only the beginning. The dawn of 3D printing technology will carve away wait times, dramatically decrease the costs of space and part availability, open room for more dual-use technical personnel, and break open a whole new world of possibilities for vessels at sea. Already the buzz of the private sector, 3D printing will quickly revolutionize the way we conduct supply at sea in a variety of ways.
Waiting to Wait:
3D printing will exponentially accelerate repair times by the virtually instant availability of repair parts. While underway, simple repairs are at times impossible due a lack of parts. Incomplete repairs often pile up, degrading other systems and crew morale. Even if the time exists to complete the repairs, the parts might not arrive for weeks. With an on-board 3D printer, many of these particular pieces can be produced on demand. Ships’ systems can have their schematics loaded into a database and, using the technical drawing, identify exactly what part needs to be produced. For more complicated or legacy systems, waiting for a rare-produced item or a subcontractor to machine different pieces will become obsolete. More robust shore-side 3D printing facilities will be able to build those systems without requiring legacy facilities or downstream suppliers.
Finance and Floor Space:
3D printing will also decrease navies’ expenditures by ending many purchasing commitments and freeing up property. When travelling on orders recently, I was rather surprised to discover the “military price” for rooms at a hotel to be higher than the regular price. It was told that while regular prices and availability change year round, rooms set aside for the military are always available and at the same price. The same principle drives the supply system. For any particular requisition parts may be more expensive than if the Navy shopped around, but deals are struck in advance to guarantee the availability of the part at the trade-off of a cheaper price. 3D printing will render obsolete the requirement for many of those deals by creating a continuous part availability. 3D printing will also drive into obsolescence acres of warehouse and administrative space for the storage and transit of these parts. The raw mineral content required for 3D printing can be housed and bought far more efficiently than the vast catalogues of part sub-types. Much of this material may not even have to be stored, since it could be purchased and transferred to replenishment ships from local markets. In terms of money and space, 3D printing is the equivalent of putting the supply community through “The Biggest Loser.”
3D printers will eliminate the need for many personnel that lack directly mission-applicable skills. Logistical Specialists (LSs) are often purely administrative, managing the arcane system of forms, finance, and finagling that they have inherited with an unwieldy logistical juggernaut designed to support an entire fleet. A logistics system that simplifies or removes huge swaths of that administrative system with 3D printing will shift the need from LS’s and supply contractors to sailors who specialized in the repair and operation of 3D printers and their software. These technically savvy sailors would be more in-sync for use in the engineering and IT world, where LSs are a rather niche service. Specialization in such equipment could even become an NEC for rates that already exist.
Blood and Beans:
Materials are important in war, but until military drones run themselves, the hunger and health of human personnel will be paramount. Military personnel are used to MRE’s, so using 3D printers to create food consumed by sailors and marines would not be a large jump. Honestly, powdered eggs could only be improved by the application of laser science. Perhaps even more beneficial, 3D printers hold out the promise of saving personnel involved in accidents or combat on ships and in the battlefield, where they could one day be used to replicate damaged tissue or even entire organs.
More Tailbone than Tail:
Shorter wait-times, leaner overhead, more flexible personnel, and better maintained personnel are only the beginning for 3D printing. 3D printers are capable of making parts that are lighter, stronger, and more efficient than the ones we produce in modern machine shops. Equipment can be made safer, removing typical seams and welds. There mere fact that technicians can see the part before it is produced, rather than waiting months to realize the wrong item has been sent, will remove untold frustrations. Biomining, the extraction of minerals using micro-organisms, also offers promise when combined with 3D printing. The ocean contains especially high concentrations of magnesium, used widely in electronics and engine components. Some raw supplies may, one day, no longer require replenishment from the shore but can be gathered by larger vessels from the sea directly for use. 3D printers can produce the guns, grub, and guts necessary to keep personnel operating. General Sherman once said, “Good logistics is combat power.” With 3D printing, we can bring an entire industrial base with us.