3D Systems Collaborates with Nuclear-Powered Ship Maker on 3D Printable Corrosion-Resistant Alloy

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On March 18, 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) announced a collaboration with Newport News Shipbuilding to make copper-nickel alloys that can be used in powder bed fusion printers. The deal will let Newport, one of the Navy’s top shipbuilders, lower their lead times by as much as 75 percent.

“We’re excited to continue our partnership with 3D Systems on these important shipbuilding alloys,” said Dave Bolcar, Newport’s Vice President of Engineering and Design.

Copper-nickel is truly a miracle material for maritime purposes. CuNI-dominant alloys are resistant to seawater corrosion and macrofouling by sea life like barnacles and algae. Because of these properties, and the ductility added by nickel, it’s commonly used in shipping, offshore oil production, and desalination plants. The most common formula is 90-10 copper-nickel, with trace amounts of other elements like iron and manganese.

The only problem? This miracle material can’t be 3D printed yet, and traditional casting techniques can cause a lead time of over 12 months for replacement parts. To solve that, 3D Systems aims to develop printable copper-nickel and nickel-copper (the same alloy, with different amounts of each element). They will be working with Newport to choose the exact alloy composition, design process parameter experiments, and perform materials testing and qualification.

Newport Shipbuilding is the US Navy’s only source of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, like the USS John F. Kennedy pictured here (Image via U.S. Navy/Matt Hildreth)

This isn’t the two companies’ first time working together. Back in 2018, they partnered to qualify whether metal 3D printing would work for building warships. 3D Systems installed their high volume industrial ProX DMP 320 printers at Newport’s facilities.

The implications of this new deal are also largely military. Newport is currently the Navy’s only source of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and one of only a few sources of nuclear-powered submarines. The development of 3D printable copper-nickel will let them make replacement parts faster, speeding up vessel maintenance and repair.

3D Systems will also add copper nickel to its materials portfolio, serving customers like the Department of Defense (who awarded them a contract to research corrosion issues in 2019), and the Army’s CCDC Laboratory. Aside from its military uses, 3D Systems believes their alloy will be useful to industries like oil and gas refining and energy production.

“These new materials have the potential to redefine Newport News Shipbuilding’s innovation pipeline enabling them to more efficiently deliver high-quality parts,” said 3D Systems co-founder Chuck Hull, but added, “We have yet another opportunity to bring to bear our deep materials science and application engineering expertise – allowing our customers to maximize the power of additive manufacturing within their organization.”

The deal further indicates the headway being made in maritime 3D printing, in a military sense in this case. We’ve already seen numerous Navy-related projects initiated this year and at the end of last year, signifying developments in an oft-overlooked industry. Outside of these military projects, the only real movements in the space are being made by Ivaldi, Wilhelmsen and Thyssen. So, it will be interesting to see how players like 3D Systems make headway in maritime 3D printing.

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