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US Navy Official Says the Future of Military Shipbuilding Depends on Metal 3D Printing

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Matt Sermon, the executive director of the US Navy’s Program Executive Office, Strategic Submarines (PEO SSBN), recently said that the navy will need to continue significantly ramping up its additive manufacturing (AM) efforts in order to meet its production deadlines over the next decade. Sermon made the statement at the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) conference in Arlington, VA (January 30-February 2, 2023), according to Stew Magnuson of National Defense magazine.

Moreover, Sermon made it clear that his statement applies not just to his particular area of focus—submarines—but to surface vessels as well, along with the technological infrastructure required to manage those weapons systems. Sermon’s main concern driving his advocacy for AM is the reduction of lead times for parts, which of course has become one of the most common objectives for those in heavy industry who have accelerated adoption of advanced manufacturing over the last few years.

But he also stressed the projected long-term difficulties in attracting a sufficient number of manufacturing workers: according to Sermon, over the next decade there could be a labor shortage of 100,000 in the navy’s submarine program, alone. To address the difficulties in ramping up production, Sermon said that by March, 2024, the navy is attempting to have 3D printers operational for the six metals that are most important to submarine output (without publicly specifying which metals those are).

Rendering of US Navy’s AM Center of Excellence in Danville, VA. Image courtesy of US Navy

In the National Defense article about Sermon’s comments at the ASNE conference, Sermon specified some ambitious hard targets: “Eighty percent reduction in schedule for components that we need in shipyards, for components that we need in new construction, is not unrealistic. …It’s an aggressive goal, I acknowledge, but by March 2024 we will be at maturity in those six materials and be putting them on ships and submarines.”

The chief engineer and deputy commander for naval sea systems engineering and logistics, Rear Adm. Jason Lloyd, summed up where the US Navy is in its AM progress with reference to Tuckman’s stages of group development: “We’ve been in the storming, norming, performing cycle. We’ve been in the ‘storming’ for many years, and we’re now at the ‘norming’.”

3D printed pipe fittings made by Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. Image courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding

The navy’s progress on submarines is a useful gauge for how quickly the US military as a whole could enter the ‘performing’ stage in its AM trajectory. As aggressive as the goal stated by Sermon certainly is, the navy already seems to have met the deadline it set at the beginning of 2022, to install 3D printed parts on submarines by the end of last year.

And, increasing progress has already been made this year on US Navy 3D printing, progress which includes the installation of a Markforged X7 Field Edition aboard the USS New Hampshire Virginia-class submarine. Additionally, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) was recently approved to 3D print parts for Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) vessels.

Thus, a great effort is clearly still needed, if the US Navy is to meet targets along the lines of what Sermon announced, but the pieces certainly seem to be in place for such an effort to be successful. Notably, the most undetermined variable, just like in the private sector, is workforce development. The more serious that both public and private decision-makers become about meeting their advanced manufacturing targets, the more inevitable is the ultimate emergence of some broad-sweeping, public-private partnership to revitalize America’s factory labor pool.

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