An officer shows off objects created by a 3-D printer as part of the Navy's 'Print the Fleet' demonstration June 26 in Virginia Beach, Va. (MCSN Jonathan B. Trejo / Navy)
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — The fleet’s 3-D printing experiments have produced everything from tools and phone-jack plates to gas caps and training aids in the past year — and done so in hours, rather than the days, weeks or months sailors wait for some parts.
The state-of-the-art technology allows a sailor to blueprint a needed part and then fabricate it on the spot. So far, the Navy’s tests have used plastic to fashion spare caps on a big-deck amphib and scaled ship models for naval engineers.
Officials are sold on the concept and are asking sailors for lists of high-demand items to be made from plastic, with the aim to have 3-D printers able to manufacture from metal and other materials like industry. The hope is that one day a ship crew will be able to manufacture complex parts from the middle of the ocean.
But to get there, the Navy will have to navigate a host of issues, from certifications and copyrights to materials and obstacles specific to a ship at sea.
The Navy’s active-duty innovation team is passing the technology onto the operational Navy and its engineering centers, according to interviews with officials at the “Print the Fleet” workshop held at Combat Direction Systems Activity Dam Neck in late June.
The Navy technology centers on refrigerator-sized printers that layer thin polycarbonate plastic following a 3-D blueprint to create a part. In the fleet testing over the past year, sailors and civilians have used commercial programs to create 3-D renderings of items, even designing new or modified items that can be tested at a relatively low cost.
It’s the hobby shop of the future for “military MacGyvers,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, who spoke via video link to sailors at the exhibit.
Navy printers can use just about any plastic material that can be melted and placed in a spool, said Jim Lambeth, additive manufacturing lead at CDSA Dam Neck.
Uses identified so far include the manufacture of out-of-production circuit card clips for Tomahawk cruise missiles; a custom oil line wrench for the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter that saves hours of work on each oil change; a lighter, cheaper hydraulic manifold for the V-22 Osprey; and cheaper Pylon Adapter Modeling for the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol airplane.
Most sailors have a horror story or two about a long wait for a part — sometimes an inconsequential one, like a gas cap that’s hard to replace in the middle of the ocean.
“A lot of times, it’s not the $100,000 part that really drives you crazy because those are in the stock system,” said Capt. Jim Loper, who heads the concepts and innovation department at Navy Warfare Development Command. “It is the $1 little plastic part that really drives you crazy.”
At the workshop, many wished they could get their hands on a printer setup now, like Senior Chief Logistics Specialist (AW/SW) David Bracy, who works at Fleet Readiness Center Norfolk.
“If we had this capability right now, we could have our [technical directives] up to code in a matter of weeks,” Bracy said. “That takes the current supply system a matter of years.”
Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class (AW) Andrew Fath, who also works at FRC Norfolk, said he was compiling a list of the “countless tools and parts from back in the day that now have to be locally manufactured.”
Fath is confident this technology will cut down wait time — and is interested in using the 3-D modeling software to produce new tools.
The Navy in the coming year will establish near, mid- and long-term implementation goals, said Dave Barrett, who heads the Navy’s additive manufacturing initiative for the chief of naval operations.
While the suits take care of administrative matters, 3-D printers are scheduled to produce F/A-18 Super Hornet ducts in fiscal 2015, and a metal printer is expected to come on line that year.
Lt. Ben Kohlmann, project manager for Print the Fleet, is a Hornet flier by trade. He said the technology to produce certified mechanical parts is not yet there, but is getting closer. Boeing is printing F/A-18 air baffles and fuel nozzles for other aircraft.
A polycarbonate wing spar also has been printed for the F-35 joint strike fighter.
“Right now, I wouldn’t want to fly with a plastic part,” Kohlmann said. But once metal parts meet certification standards, he continued, “absolutely, put them on.”
While the possibilities are endless, the problems are many.
Accreditation and certification top the list. Any mission-critical part must be certified, meaning rigorous tests to ensure it is resilient enough to withstand the system it is in, whether in a seawater pump or diesel engine or flight deck crane.
The quality of shipboard printing is another issue.
“A printer in a steady, climate-controlled environment is going to have a different result than a printer on a ship that is rocking and rolling,” Loper said. “It is a little more difficult to control temperature and humidity on a ship, and you have to contend with a constant vibration.”
The Navy has gathered much data from the amphibious assault ship Essex, which has used a 3-D printer since last year. Similar evaluations are expected in the future.
In the meantime, the Navy has to work out copyright issues. Companies make a lot of money on spare parts and may not relinquish those rights, but it is likely future contracts will allow the Navy to produce a set number of spares, officials said.