A 3D printer conducts a diagnostic run aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) on July 9, 2022.

A 3D printer conducts a diagnostic run aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) on July 9, 2022. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Isaak Martinez / U.S. Navy

US Navy Prints Metal Parts on the High Seas

An amphibious assault ship is testing a shipboard 3D printer during RIMPAC exercises.

The advantages of installing 3D printing across the federal government could be huge, although the technology has been slow to reach that potential. That could finally be changing as the Navy has deployed the first 3D printer onboard a warship that is capable of printing reliable metal parts while underway at sea.

The government has been interested in 3D printing for a very long time. Back in 2015, I wrote an explainer-type story for Nextgov where experts talked about the many advantages that government would eventually gain from investing in 3D printing technology. But while those early printers were extremely interesting, they had limited use because of the substrate they used to create physical objects.

Early 3D printers only used a plastic-based substrate, which was generally fed into them on long spools, which would be melted and then repurposed into whatever object the creator wanted. The early printers were capable of producing some amazingly advanced projects, with some of them able to accept computer-aided design plan files for extreme precision. However, because of the substrate used, the final product was made of plastic, so it was of limited use. Yes, you could print a small combustion engine, a gear for a machine or a work of art, but trying to use the finished product in any practical way would probably cause it to melt or break.

The killer application for 3D printing in government came not from finding something useful that the government could print in plastic, but from improving the printers to be able to handle more durable raw materials, especially metals. Called additive manufacturing, certain 3D printers now allow the government to print products using everything from metals to composite fibers to concrete.

I recently hosted a roundtable discussion with experts in the field of additive manufacturing. Experts working in the field explained the many advances that 3D printing has made over the years, and how that is opening up new possibilities for government service.

“We have a system that prints stainless steel, metal tools and copper,” said Tony Higgins, Federal Leader for Markforged, one of the new leaders in additive manufacturing. “A lot of our customers are using this type of technology to create functional tools, custom parts, work holdings and fixtures.”

So far, the Army has been one of the biggest proponents of 3D printing for complex construction jobs. “We have a number of different systems that can print everything from concrete, to foams, to other types of materials,” said Megan Kreider, Mechanical Engineer for the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory. Kreider recently worked on an Army project where an entire bridge was constructed of 3D parts that were printed using concrete and other heavy materials.

“You have to go through a structural engineer, and they outline what the reinforcement needs to be, how it’s going to be printed, and it’s highly interdisciplinary.” Kreider said. But after that, the parts are printed, normally right on the job site, and then fitted together to form the structure.

On land, 3D printing structures in the military can save time and money for big projects. But at sea, having the ability to print a critical part on demand might be the difference between having a ship able to continue its mission and requiring it to return to port for repairs. That is why the Navy has been so interested in additive manufacturing as it evolved from more simple 3D printing. 

Last year, the Navy installed a liquid metal printer manufactured by Xerox at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Called the ElemX Liquid Metal Additive Manufacturing machine, it is being used to test out manufacturing during deployments, and to reduce the long supply chains needed to support ships at sea.

Apparently, the testing on land went well, as the Navy announced that an additive manufacturing 3D printer is now installed on the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex. The printer is being tested during the massive Rim of the Pacific—or RIMPAC—2022 combat exercises taking place over the summer. The Essex is the first ship to participate in the initial testing and evaluation of an additive manufacturing 3D printer during underway conditions at sea.

During RIMPAC, the 3D printer on the Essex will be tasked with printing many of the parts that Navy ships routinely require while on maneuvers. This includes training sailors how to quickly manufacture heat sinks, housings, bleed air valves, fuel adapters, valve covers and much more. The printer on the Essex can manufacture metal parts as large as 10-by-10 inches.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Nicolas Batista, the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) officer aboard Essex, “Additive manufacturing has become a priority and it’s evident that it will provide a greater posture in warfighting efforts across the fleet, and will enhance expeditionary maintenance that contributes to our surface competitive edge.”

If the printer performs well during RIMPAC, the Navy could expand the role of those devices. Batista said in a Navy press release that the “Commander Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, Naval Air Systems Command have also initiated efforts to establish an AIMD work center, solely designed for the additive manufacturing concept, and are striving towards the capability of fabricating needed aircraft parts with a 3D printer.”

So it seems like if all goes well for the 3D printer during RIMPAC, that we may soon see more heavy metal manufacturing on the high seas, and more complex and larger parts being constructed by sailors, without any assistance or materials from back on land required.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys