3D printing might be saving naval manufacturing

While many may still think of 3D-printed objects as better suited for a toy store or a scientific lab, the ability to produce components using military-grade ma...

More than any other military branch, the Navy’s ability to conduct maritime operations depends largely on the readiness of its vessels – in particular, the health of its submarines. Along with this comes the knowledge that, without the ability to make complex repairs or service these vessels periodically, our capabilities to either project or expand undersea power is near impossible.

Unfortunately, bottlenecks in the submarine industrial base have regularly reared their heads in recent years, largely because capabilities in producing for this industry are often hard to come by. This isn’t surprising when you take into account that the submarine industrial complex has observed a shrink of more than 70% since the 1980s, and that’s one reason the Navy has begun to look towards additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing.

While many may still think of 3D-printed objects as better suited for a toy store or a scientific lab, the ability to produce components using military-grade materials has taken shape in recent years, much to the Navy’s benefit. Parts large and small can now be produced on demand, in some cases consolidating hundreds of parts together, but without full buy-in from decision-makers, the technology may not reach its full potential.

A new breed of resilience

Despite that aforementioned shrink in the submarine industrial complex, the Navy plans to build two Virginia-class submarines and one of the much larger Columbia-class every year starting in FY2026, effectively five times the work that is performed today (one Virginia-class per year). This represents an enormous commitment from the Defense Department, one that would be difficult to achieve using traditional approaches.

Recently, HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division and General Dynamics Electric Boat sourced a component from a 3D printing company that they plan to integrate onto the Virginia-class general attack submarine USS Oklahoma.

Because the original equipment manufacturer equipment integrators of the fleet implemented copper-nickel and other marine-based alloys, HII and GDEB created a deck drain made of those same alloys using additive manufacturing. This is one recent, salient example of how 3D printing affords the ability and opportunity to quickly onramp production capacity by fabricating the essential parts that keep vessels at sea for long periods of time in high-performance structural alloys.

Demands for relentless innovation

Between schedule delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain related delays due to a lack of suppliers, the Navy and its manufacturers are seeing significant setbacks in their ability to deliver submarines on the cadence originally agreed upon. To make matters more complicated, the service says the high-priority Columbia-class submarines cannot fall behind schedule.

Additive manufacturing is being tested to fill that gap. In November 2023, the Navy sought to expand the supply chain for submarine parts by supporting companies explicitly interested in demonstrating capabilities in metal additive manufacturing. The Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence has been purported to be the service’s only path to building the two submarine classes on time.

The Navy has already used additive manufacturing to print for several applications, usually small repair pieces needed for ships at sea: circuit covers, radio knobs and other items that would be difficult and expensive to access while deployed. However, this is a far more encompassing endeavor entirely – seeking to produce parts of incredible scale as well for the most demanding structural applications. The advent itself of the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence is a great sign of what lies ahead for the marriage of the emerging technology and submarine-related applications.

It’s an equally good sign that the Navy has faith in these applications. The director of the Navy’s submarine-industrial base program told reporters that metal additive manufacturing could increase capacity by 15-20% while improving quality and cutting production by as much as 90%.

Securing dominance in manufacturing

Already, there have been breakthroughs that make additive manufacturing a more comprehensive solution for the Navy and other maritime-related production industries – most notably the ability to print using specific alloys tailored to specific vessels. Another vital breakthrough required is the capability to test in reference environments 3D-printed parts and structures, ensuring a stark trend downward in faulty parts that could stall production at best and endanger servicemen and servicewomen while at sea at worst.

Transformational innovations in additive manufacturing for these applications are being developed by emerging startup companies and the private sector – everything from artificially-intelligent systems in control of intricate weld pool dynamics, to significantly higher deposition rates capable of printing at scales far in excess of what’s been observed in traditional applications. Currently, additive manufacturing is being employed to bolster certain parts installed in Naval submarines, though the Navy is poised to nurture the technology in order to ensure more integral, more structural components, could also be manufactured using additive in the near future.

As the Navy invests in the world of additive manufacturing, it’s incredibly likely that there will emerge more opportunities for other similar industries to take advantage of these developments, such that they could utilize additional alloys or additional 3D printing methods that are in development. As demand continues to skyrocket and supply through more traditional approaches continues to wane, additive manufacturing will become an increasingly more effective and immediate answer that can continue protecting nations on the capabilities of a new breed of advanced manufacturing.

Christian LaRosa is CEO and co-founder of Rosotics, an additive manufacturing firm that is rapidly developing the technology to print large-scale components

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