US Coast Guard Researching Ways to Use 3D Printing to Improve Mission Readiness

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The US Navy has used 3D printing technology on numerous occasions: to develop a missile component, a submarine hull, and a small clip to keep the clasps of handheld radios intact, among other examples, but we don’t hear much about whether the US Coast Guard is using the technology. 3D printing at sea has been a reality for a few years now, and right now the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in Connecticut is studying how the technology could improve mission readiness through logistical support.

As it turns out, 3D printers are already on board five Coast Guard cutters (commissioned vessels), and are also being used at several operational shore units, including the Surface Forces Logistics Center Engineering Services Division in Baltimore and Base New Orleans. The research into 3D printing will help “identify ways in which 3-D printing can best be implemented to provide maximum benefits to the Coast Guard.”

Ensign Abigail Isaacs uses a 3D printer aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy

Lt. Steven Hager, the Surface Domain lead with the Office of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, said, “This project presents an opportunity for operational units to innovate and design 3-D printed solutions to meet their needs, but to also explore the limitations and practical applications of additive manufacturing technologies.”

3D printed scullery nozzle

One of the major ways 3D printing technology has helped the Coast Guard is by creating spare parts, including a 3D printed nozzle for a dishwasher on board Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20), which operates mostly in the Arctic and Bering Seas, 3D printed sensor mounts for an unmanned maritime system, and replacement parts for legacy cutters, which can be hard to track down. By using 3D printing to manufacture these older parts, the Coast Guard can save on production time and cost.

Capt. Joseph Dugan, the program manager for the National Security Cutter Program, said, “Sometimes manufacturers no longer make the parts, and need to retool a production line in order to make us the part we need. This can be time-consuming, and very costly to the government.”

“I think the utility of the 3-D printer is the ability to print parts that are not normally kept onboard. Sometimes those parts have lead times of weeks … maybe months, depending on the workload of the manufacturer.”

As an example, the crew of the Medium Endurance Cutter needed a switch for an important on board system, and it was proving difficult to track down. So crew members on the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer (WMEC 905) took it upon themselves to design and print a replacement, which helped with cost saving.

One of the earliest uses of 3D printing on board a Coast Guard cutter was in 2013, when the 3D printing capabilities aboard Healy were used to print replacement parts for a remotely operated vehicle that had been crushed in the ice. This 3D printed part made it possible for the RDC to successfully complete an important research project.

A replacement part for this remotely operated vehicle was 3D printed in the Arctic aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2013

“The Healy is a natural fit for 3-D printing. Because of the geographical location in which it operates, getting spare parts can be difficult,” explained Jason Story, RDC project manager for the Evaluation of Three-Dimensional (3-D) Printing Technology for Coast Guard Applications.

Not all of the spare parts the Coast Guard is 3D printing are of vital importance to mission completion…at least not in an obvious way. To keep the work environment positive aboard the national security Coast Guard Cutter James (WMSL 754), crew members 3D printed a handle for a coffee pot. On a typical 60 to 90 day patrol, national security cutters (NSC) have a crew of about 120 people, and according to James’ commanding officer Captain Mark Fedor, “Ships run on diesel and coffee.” I work alone in my office every day, and I still need caffeine each morning to feel like a functioning human; I can’t imagine being at sea with over 100 other people and no working coffee pot.

Dennis Crimiel, deputy in the Office of Logistics (CG-44) and program sponsor representative, said, “The U.S. Coast Guard continues to explore and look for ways to incorporate emerging technologies that fall under the umbrella of additive manufacturing such as 3-D printing into our efforts to sustain and support our aviation and surface fleets. RDC’s engagement with our military service partners and industry keeps us abreast of how this technology is being applied and used in tactical and operational logistics support operations.”

For the evaluation portion of the RDC’s 3D printing research, several recent Coast Guard Academy graduates, with backgrounds in CAD, were chosen as 3D printing liaisons to help install and train operators, who are designing innovative tools and components, as well as continuing to print replacement parts.

Story said, “By using 3-D modeling software, operators are able to develop their own parts and print them as they are needed.”

This prototype pump bracket for the H-65 medium range surveillance helicopter was printed by the US Navy in collaboration with the Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, NC [Image: US Coast Guard photo, Bill Bryan]

The research is centered around desktop 3D printers and polymer material, but in the future the RDC may take a page from the Navy’s book and focus on stronger materials like metal. The RDC also developed a machine similar to a paper shredder to grind used plastic filament, and then uses a commercial machine to melt it, to help reduce waste on Coast Guard cutters equipped with 3D printers.

Story says that the next project step will be developing a “roadmap for wider integration of additive manufacturing into Coast Guard operations. Or, charting the course forward for the use of 3-D printing.”

However, the Coast Guard will also need to make sure that it addresses issues like quality assurance and training before it adds 3D printers to the fleet.

Story said, “Quality control and establishing guidelines on what parts are good candidates for additive manufacturing are key.”

Discuss in the Coast Guard 3D Printing forum thread at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Coast Guard Compass / All Images: US Coast Guard]


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