Navy looks to cash in on 3D printing at sea

Additive manufacturing could rapidly print replacement parts or supplies for Navy ships, lowering logistical costs.

As 3D printing becomes more accessible and less expensive, the Navy is exploring its possibilities as an at-sea manufacturing technology.

In a two-day event held June 24 and 26, the Navy hosted its first Maker Faire at Combat Direction Systems Activity, Dam Neck, one of the Navy’s warfare centers. The Maker Faire, which traditionally is a family event that features experimentation and innovation across engineering, science, art and crafts, consisted of a series of workshops designed to familiarize Navy sailors and stakeholders with additive manufacturing.

“Print the Fleet,” as the workshops were called, showcased manufacturing techniques and educational opportunities for sailors to learn about the process, according a Navy release

The Navy will be looking primarily at the technology as a solution to logistical problems that arise from operating on the high seas.

"When you consider the cost and vulnerabilities of our existing Navy logistics and supply chains as well as the resource constraints we face, it quickly becomes clear that we have to reimagine how we do business," Vice Adm. Phil Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, said in a video introduction for the event. “When advanced manufacturing and 3D printing becomes widely available, we envision a global network of advanced fabrication shops supported by sailors with the skills and training to identify problems and make products."  

In the future, the Navy is looking to train sailors in additive manufacturing, so that if a part breaks down, sailors could design, upload and print a replacement within hours or days, significantly decreasing costs and shipping times.

The Navy put a 3D printer on the USS Essex to experiment with the concept earlier this year. The printer has been used to print disposable medical supplies, small caps for an oil tank, and model planes. The Navy is still looking at how they could print parts that operate under high-stress conditions.  

"The future of logistics is 3D printing," said Capt. Jim Loper, concepts and innovations department head at Navy Warfare Development Center. "The quantity of supplies we carry on board could be reduced significantly if we 3D print those products on the ship. There really are no limits."

The Navy isn’t alone in its exploration of 3D printing technology.

The White House on June 18 hosted its first-ever Maker Faire, which showcased a 3D-printed bust and life mask of President Obama – the first presidential portrait created from a 3D scan.

The Army has used 3D printing to manufacture equipment in Afghanistan and repair vehicles in the field, and is exploring electronics printing to print antennas onto helmets and sensors into clothing. Earlier this year, the Army and NASA — which has been making a lot of use of the technology — also announced the formation of a joint Additive Manufacturing Integrated Product Team to investigate the latest advancements in the technology.