truman

The USS Harry Truman out at sea.

We generally envision naval officers busy at the helm, bravely fending off seaspray on the decks while enduring enormous rolling waves, and waving in landing aircraft on massive decks. From afar, life at sea sounds exciting and adventurous. With the emphasis on afar, however, there are often things one cannot get on the ship that they may want or need. Waiting until the next port comes along might seem like mighty long, whether that be for a favorite food or drink or a necessary gizmo. Self-sustainability at sea is obviously a major priority, and also an obvious reason why this particular branch of the military might hone in on the benefits of 3D printing.

When necessity and new technology came together on the USS Harry S. Truman, unexpected innovation was born in the form of tiny new plastic device made in a figure eight shape. And while many might find it helpful too, word is that it’s already saving the Navy thousands of dollars.

The TruClip at work (Image: Chris Church/ Stars and Stripes)

The Tru-Clip at work [Image: Chris Church/ Stars and Stripes]

The Tru-Clip was designed out of both need and frustration after the ship’s combat systems department became annoyed enough to do something about the constant issue of handheld radio clasps breaking. These are used ship-wide and the problem was common. The combat systems team went to the 3D printing team for help, working in an onboard Fab Lab that we’ve been following since its inception, set up precisely to handle self-sustainability issues while out to sea, making it easy to maintain even the smallest parts without having to wait until returning to port.

Lt. (j.g.) Casey Staidl and three other sailors in the lab, which was originally just an experimental idea, began brainstorming on how they could help the other department. The design they came up with, offering up all the benefits of 3D printing (and at sea, no less!) is highly functional yet costs very little to make; in fact, you might be highly surprised to find out just how very little. Each Tru-Clip costs six cents to manufacture from the 3D printer, and they ensure that radio clasp attachments don’t crack or break. This is of course quite impressive when compared to the $615 it would have cost to purchase a new radio clasp once the ship docked, or to have some flown in. And with this maintenance being an ongoing problem previously, it’s now calculated that they have saved over $12,000—just in three months.

“It doesn’t look pretty, it’s not a real sexy innovation, but that alone has saved us a ton of money,” Staidl said. “In the past 2 ½ years, Truman has spent $146,000 just on these pigtail attachments alone.”

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Stevens, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley Figert, 3D printer technicians onboard the USS Harry S. Truman, watch the printer at work. [Image: Chris Church / Stars and Stripes]

While only two clips are in use so far, the savings are spectacular, and obviously they will plan to use many more of them. Not only that, the team is actually sharing their digital design for the clasp with astronauts at the International Space Station. This is another crew enthusiastic about 3D printing, as we’ve followed continually, from the 3D printing of their emailed wrench design to an expanded list of items all quite famously fabricated in space. Again, this will be another emailed design to the astronauts, who may also find it to be quite helpful. This project will also fit in quite nicely with the National Week of Making being sponsored by the White House from June 17-23 as they work to honor a variety of inventors.

As one of the first Navy crews to have a 3D printing lab bestowed upon them, things certainly seem to be working out well so far. The technology is also being used on two amphibious assault ships, the USS Essex and USS Kearsarge. These labs are still considered to be pilot programs, aiming to see if 3D printing is truly practical out at sea, according to Chief Petty Officer Jerrod Jenkins, the chief in charge of the 3D printing lab. So far—and certainly so good—means we’ll be watching with the rest of the world to see how this new design plays out in space as well.

The military has had a major interest in 3D printing for quite some time, and the Navy in particular. We’ve followed the fascinating evolution of their use of the technology, from drones made out at sea from the USS Essex to missiles being launched with 3D printed components to word of on-demand printing impacting fleets in the near future. The vision of a sailor decked out in uniform innovating at the 3D printer might not be what you previously expected, but as of now it may be something we should all certainly consider getting used to. Do you think 3D printing labs on naval ships are here to stay? Discuss further in the Sailors 3D Print Radio Clips forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Stars and Stripes]
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[Image: Chris Church / Stars and Stripes]

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