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.
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.
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.
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 demonstratedcapability. 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.
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.