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Forward Deployed 3-D Printers Might 
Be the Next Warfighter Innovation

May 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Additive manufacturing, more commonly understood in the technology world as 3-D printing, is here to stay. Integrating this technology into our fleet and logistical supply chains now could provide incredible benefits, even though the technology still is relatively nascent. The Economist calls this “the third industrial revolution,” and, indeed, these techniques could transform the way we supply materiel in the wars we fight.

Imagine you are a supply officer on a minesweeper and a relatively simple plastic gas cap disappears. Or as the commanding officer of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, you discover that a small part of your close-in weapon system breaks and the supply chain has no more. As a submariner, you are on station for three months of deployment only to discover a malfunctioning inexpensive butterfly valve may necessitate aborting the whole mission. What do you do?

These are all true stories. In the first, the Navy spent $400 to ship that $7 gas cap halfway around the world. The destroyer’s commanding officer was forced to complete his deployment without a key defensive system. For the submarine, some enterprising machinist mates found solid copper and banged out a replacement in a matter of minutes that lasted through the end of deployment. All these situations had solutions, but none of them was ideal.

What if each of these vessels had easy access to a 3-D printer or an additive manufacturing capability organic to the ship? What if, instead of waiting six months or more for a high-fail, high-demand plastic part, a replacement could be printed instantaneously, tested and then implemented immediately?

To be sure, this is not new technology. Additive manufacturing techniques have been around for more than 20 years. Places such as the Navy Undersea Warfare Center Keyport Division, Washington, have created more than 24,000 unique parts using 3-D printers for their customers. Furthermore, naval aviation supply depots are using additive manufacturing to create parts for aircraft that no longer have supply chains, such as EA-6Bs. Now the proliferation and capabilities of the technology have advanced to the point where they could be implemented widely and experimented with at a fleet operator level.

The U.S. Army, through its Rapid Equipping Force, already has placed this technology in Afghanistan. It has a multimillion-dollar mobile lab with everything from CNC lathes and laser scanners to 3-D printers and other fabrication machines for use by on-the-ground infantry personnel. Interestingly, the most popular applications have been the creation of simple tools that are more useful in soldiers’ lives—a case in point is the creation of widely used flashlight clips.

This last example highlights the power of this technology. It allows innovative, on-the-ground personnel to create their own solutions and test them in real time. With on-site or back-end support, iterative prototyping is inexpensive. And, for more complex objects requiring actual casting, 3-D printed molds can save tens of thousands of dollars over traditional creation methods.

While this technology cannot yet print objects such as a gas turbine engine blade to a high enough precision to make it MILSPEC-worthy, noncritical parts for programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter are being printed with carbon-fiber materials. Companies such as Organovo Holdings Inc. and Modern Meadow LLC are even printing organics with a view toward creating entire human organs for the former and protein-based steaks for the latter.

So, what would this capability look like in the present day? Aboard an aircraft carrier or forward-deployed supply depot would sit a 3-D scanner and 3-D printing machine. Two or three qualified computer-aided design (CAD) engineers would operate this gear. A sailor with a broken part, or an idea for a part, would come to this hub to have the object scanned to create a description of what is desired. The data package would be sent back to the United States digitally where, at another center, the CAD file would be modified to be suitable for printing.

With the fabrication complete, the data file would be returned to the ship or depot, the object would be printed and the user would try it out. If it does not work, modifications could be integrated easily and the object reprinted. If it does work, the CAD file would be linked to the current supply database, enabling other users to print that object based on their needs, alleviating supply lead times and expensive shipping.

This may seem like science fiction, but the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell already is undertaking a version of this very process. It hopes to have it integrated within 18 months, getting the fleet familiarized with the technology as well as the most creative sailors involved with developing innovative solutions to their direct needs.

Additive manufacturing is coming, and we need to be ready, as a force, to embrace it.

Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command, part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column online or via email at signalnews@afcea.org.

 

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