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Parts 3D Printed on US Naval Ship Signals Sea Change in Military Supply Chain

Correction 9/9/22: This article previously stated that SPEE3D was the first to 3D print parts aboard a naval vessel. We have recently learned that Xerox successfully 3D printed metal parts in July 2022. This correction is reflected below.

As the U.S. Navy increases its implementation of additive manufacturing (AM), it has achieved a series of firsts for the military branch. The latest is the successful 3D printing of parts aboard a naval vessel, which it accomplished using SPEE3D’s ultra-fast metal 3D printing technology.

Metal 3D Printing Aboard a US Naval Ship

To perform the exercise, the company relied on one of its WarpSPEED 3D printers to produce a bronze anchor five times while the ship was operating at sea. Each part was produced in just six minutes, yielding the same results. Moreover, the SPEE3D team even worked with other companies during their trials to 3D print such items as pressure fittings for pipes, protective boxes for naval equipment, and manufacturing mechanisms for robotic arms.

SPEE3D’s WarpSPEE3D cold spray technology. Image courtesy of SPEE3D.

“Our goal during REPTX was to successfully test WarpSPEE3D’s deployable technology to print maritime military parts on demand and in various sea conditions. We’re thrilled the results are favorable and that SPEE3D is the world’s first to print parts on a ship,” said Steven Camilleri, Co-Founder and CTO of SPEE3D. “We understand the operational, economic, and supply chain issues the military faces and look forward to continuing to work with US Defense to help solve some of these challenges.”

Repairing Naval Ships at Sea

The feat was accomplished as a part of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Repair Technology Exercise (REPTX) conducted as part of Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX)-Coastal Trident 2022 at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California. Over the course of 12 days, over 60 technology suppliers utilized their products to address maintenance and repair problems faced by the Naval fleet.

During the final hot wash in the SDTS mess hall on Sept. 1, SPEE3D Chief Technology Officer Steven Camilleri, left, shows off one of the four aluminum bronze commemorative anchors his team manufactured with its 3D printer aboard the Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS) during the Repair Technology Exercise (REPTX) at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD). The table next to Camilleri displays the other items the SPEE3D team members produced under their tent adjacent to the ship during the first week of REPTX, including a wrench, a pully, parts of a ship’s door handle, a pressure pump flange, a valve handle, an impeller, and a removable cover for the ship’s Forward Looking Infrared tracking camera cable box. (U.S. Navy photo by Eric Parsons/Released)

Among those suppliers was Australia’s SPEE3D, whose take on cold spray deposition sees metal powders ejected at rates of 100 grams per minute using supersonic gas jets. That’s 100 to 1,000 times faster than other metal 3D printing technologies, according to the company. In addition to achieving great speeds, the company’s technology can use 12 different materials, ranging from copper, stainless steel and titanium to high-strength aluminum and nickel-based carbides.

US Navy Increases 3D Printing Usage

SPEE3D’s accomplishment seemingly puts it a step behind Xerox, which recently claimed its own naval “first.” The company saw its ElemX system become the first metal 3D printer deployed at sea in July of 2022, outside of REPTEX. While not discussed in detail at that time, that story involved not only a diagnostic test of the machine, but also the successful printing of aluminum parts. Also taking part in REPTEX was VRC Metal Systems, a South Dakota-based manufacturer of cold spray coating technology. Whereas SPEE3D’s equipment produced complete parts, VRCs technology was used for applying metallic coatings to rusted areas of the ship.

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3DPrint.com Macro Analyst Matt Kremenetsky pointed out that the Navy may be drawn to cold spray for its speed and comparatively compact footprint, further suggesting that maritime use of 3D printing will be increasingly necessary “to restructure supply chains such that as much AM infrastructure as possible is located near major seaports.” In a consultation with the author, Kremenetsky indicated that, in a world where the seas are getting higher due to global heating, naval forces and coast guards will have broader enforcement roles, as well, such that rising tides lift all boats for the world’s navies and, therefore, 3D printing.