3D printing has become a strong presence within the US military, particularly in the Navy, where 3D printers are being used aboard ships. The Navy has 3D printed everything from tiny clips to entire submarine hulls, and at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic, they’re using the technology every day to create needed parts.
For example, an R&D scientist wanted to create a compact, energy-saving support component that was not available commercially. He used CAD software to design it and 3D printed a prototype in a single day. The prototype needed some adjustments, so he modified the design and 3D printed a second component that met his exact requirements. Meanwhile, on a submarine, a keyboard video mouse switch had a high failure rate due to a substandard button design. Two sets of four buttons kept breaking during daily use in every common submarine room in the fleet, so SSC Atlantic personnel reverse engineered the buttons and used 3D printing to create new ones with a stronger design. After fit testing, they contracted with an outside vendor to manufacture the buttons using a heavy-duty polymer in a large quantity, at which point they were installed throughout the fleet.
Those are only a couple of examples of how SSC Atlantic has been using 3D printing to save time and money while improving the capabilities of warfighters. They have been using the technology to design and prototype new components and replacement parts, as well as modifying existing components.
“Additive manufacturing further enables SSC Atlantic to improve cost, schedule and performance in delivering and sustaining solutions to the warfighter in an environment where change is constant,” said SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller. “It fundamentally changes how we think about manufacturing, enabling us to be more responsive and meet our commitments.”
SSC Atlantic’s science and technology professionals are constantly working to develop new products, which they prototype using 3D printing. Another innovation was a spherical intelligence and surveillance product, which was designed in two interconnecting pieces and 3D printed. They then placed an embedded system with sensors inside. They could then show the prototype to military sponsors, which is far more effective than presenting a white paper.
SSC Atlantic pre-production employees also 3D printed a prototype of a rack that a customer needed to hold an intercom component. As requirements changed, multiple iterations were built, and the final version was installed to ensure form and fit. The final prototype was then sent to an outside vendor, which produced the racks in large quantities. Although the final piece was not 3D printed, using the technology for prototyping helped immensely, allowing the team to perfect the item in-house without having to repeatedly send new versions of it to an outside party.
Command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment often requires mounting solutions to hold sensitive information in place when installed in military land vehicles. Recently, the SSC Atlantic team was asked to design a bracket to secure cryptographic information in a vehicle, but crypto equipment has security sensibilities and can only be used in a secure lab or signed out for use under secure conditions.
The team solved that problem by 3D printing a full-sized plastic replica of the crypto equipment’s exterior, and designed and built the bracket to hold it. That allowed them to test form and fit and make any necessary modifications without delays. They also used CAD and 3D printing to build mounts for commercial off-the-shelf products that are not available due to vendor back orders. In another case, pre-production employees built a system integrated lab (SIL) to analyze and test system equipment for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Since the components have exposed electrical contacts, they designed and 3D printed a cover to protect technicians and operators from electrical shocks when reaching around the components.
3D printing has proved valuable not just in prototyping, but for production as well. SSC Atlantic employees needed to create a protective case for a personal computer. The original case had 13 interconnecting pieces; the team 3D printed a scale model of a case from tough plastic and designed a hooked Plexiglas top and bottom. Once it was approved by the customer, they created a full-sized version from only two pieces, rather than 13.
There was a problem with a metal cable support bracket attached to the back of a piece of submarine equipment – the cables kept sagging and catching on the nearby alert panel, disconnecting the power or damaging the cable assembly. In half an hour, the team had drawn a better design on a napkin. In an hour, it was input into CAD software, then 3D printed in 48 minutes. It was then fitted and tested with the equipment in 20 minutes – problem solved.
Then there’s the maintenance side of things. 3D scanning and 3D printing is used consistently in reverse engineering objects for redesign and repair. In one case, employees needed to replace a failed power supply on an obsolete product with components covered in tacky plastic. A new product would have meant a purchase of 10 items at $2,000 each, so instead, they peeled the plastic away with tweezers, redesigned the object and 3D printed new parts, replacing more than 100 components. The new power supply has never failed.
Those are just a few examples of what one unit is doing with 3D printing to save money, time, and make its day to day operations easier. 3D printing is in use all over the military, making operations more effective and, in turn, keeping people safer. If anyone ever dismisses the technology as being merely good for creating trinkets, point them in the direction of the Navy – they’ll be happy to clear up that misconception.
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