Crowdsourcing the Next Navy

When we think of navies, we think of tradition.

Source: Navy History and Heritage Command

The peculiar lexicon of Sailors (scuttlebutt, trice up, and wildcat come to mind), the boatswain’s pipe and lanyard, and the Beaux Arts architecture at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis are all audible or tangible indicators of the Navy’s reliance on tradition. As a result, innovation often seems antithetical to naval culture. An account from Geoffrey Till’s chapter in this book illustrates the Royal Navy’s resistance to the Aircraft Carrier:

No greater modification of any [of Her Majesty’s] ships that I proposed would have had the smallest chance of acceptance at that time. Prior to the First World War, the navy had no war experience for a very long time; and a long peace breeds conservatism and hostility to change in senior officers. Consequently, revolutionary ideas which were readily accepted when war came, were unthinkable in the peacetime atmosphere of 1912. Circumscribed by the then existing limitations my proposal was the furthest one could hope to go. – Lieutenant Hugh Williamson, RN (Page 192)

Fiscal austerity is forcing naval leaders to think about innovation: how do we use scarce means to provide the strategic ends we need? Over at Small Wars, the USNI Blog, and others, the term “disruptive thinker” has surged to the forefront of military professional discourse. At issue: do our military institutions produce and value disruptive thinkers and disruptive thoughts to foster innovation? The US Navy, however, beat everyone to the punch with little fanfare. Back in February, it quietly instituted a program to solicit disruptive ideas for development and potential adoption. In a US Fleet forces Command message (DTG 290708Z FEB 12), the Navy announced a new concept development program run jointly between Fleet Forces and the Naval Warfare Development Command. The message goes on to say:


In January, I published an article in Proceedings jointly authored with a Chief from my previous command. He received the Fleet Forces message and phoned me immediately to push our idea through this program. I was initially skeptical: would our idea disappear into an invisible morass of bureaucracy? Would we ever receive feedback? Is this just a relief valve for unorthodox concepts?

Today, I can say firsthand that this new concept generation and development program is one of the most open and transparent processes I’ve ever seen. Action officers at the O-5/O-6 level worked with me to submit a concept proposal and have kept me regularly updated regarding its potential adoption. Senior officers and civilians at Fleet Forces (many of whom finished careers in the Navy and Marine Corps) are hungry for new ways of fighting, or of manning, training, and equipping the fighters. Junior officers and enlisted Sailors are a focus of this initiative.

For those disruptive thinkers out there, the Navy is waiting to hear from you. Cultures change – even ones that value tradition as much as the Navy. That’s because no one cultural narrative ever fits perfectly: the US Navy places great value not just on tradition, but also on independence and decentralization. We already crowdsource warfare. This model equally applies to peacetime innovation.

For more information, see the governing instruction. Those with appropriate access can go to HTTP://FIMS.NWDC.NAVY.SMIL.MIL/PORTALS/CONCEPTS/DEFAULT.ASPX to submit proposals. Also, the Naval Warfare Development command is holding a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium in Norfolk on 6 June. Registrants can attend either in person or virtually.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

3D Printing: Integration Afloat

Not as useful to steal from the ship’s store.

The fourth installment in our series on 3D printing’s impact on the future of the world’s fleets.

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.

Of Rocks and Reefs

Taking a break from our series on 3D printing’s potential impact on the world’s fleets, I thought today a graphic would be in order.

China’s claims continued on page 2.

The South China Sea is and will be in the news for the foreseeable future. However, if you’re a visual person like me it’s hard to keep straight the Paracels from the Spratleys without a good visual guide. Luckily The Economist developed a nice graphic complete with the various maritime neighbors’ layer cake of competing territorial claims.

The at-times silliness of these claims is brought home when you see that most of the exclusive economic zone (out to 200nm) of Brunei on the island of Borneo is claimed by China (Malaysia’s claim should not overlap Brunei’s as they resolved their maritime border dispute in 2009 and further clarified it the next year).

So keep this in your pocket (or perhaps more practically saved away on your desktop somewhere), it’ll likely come in handy in the future for following the news.

Graphic: The Economist

3D Printing: I’ll Take a Cruiser in Pink

We’re out of toner again.

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

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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