Huntington Ingalls Industries’ (HII’s) Newport News Shipbuilding division and General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB), the two companies most integral to the US Submarine Industrial Base (SIB), have partnered to accelerate the use of additive manufacturing (AM) on the US Navy’s Virginia-class submarines. With 21 ships actively in service, Virginia is the second-largest class of submarines currently in commission.
HII and GDEB will also be working on the project with AMMCON, an Oregon-based small and medium enterprise (SME) manufacturer that also has operations in Florida, and which has extensive experience supplying parts to the US Navy and its prime contractors. On this initial use of AM for parts on an in-service vessel, HII, GDEB, and AMMCON will install a deck drain assembly printed in copper-nickel on the Virginia-class submarine Oklahoma (SSN 802).
The stage was most immediately set for this back in March, when Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) approved HII Newport News as a vendor of 3D printed parts, although HII has been working on certifying 3D printed parts for naval vessels for years, including deck drains that were certified in 2018 for use on surface vessels. Additionally, in October, 2022, the navy became the first US military branch to use 3D printing to fulfill an order for national/NATO stock number (NSN) parts — also deck drain components for surface vessels.
It can be difficult to fully grasp and precisely gauge how much progress the US military is making in its AM capabilities on a constant basis. Indeed, the fact that the announcements of developments made is now too frequent to easily keep up with is, on its own, indicative of the overall pace at which that progress is happening.
Less ambiguously, an announcement like this one, when combined with the earlier, related milestones I mentioned above, does an excellent job of illustrating the way this trajectory is unfolding. Advances are made a little bit at a time — as cautiously as possible — in the earliest stages, and then momentum starts picking up as soon as certification happens.
Therein lies the best explanation for why I get the sense that the US military is on the verge of a major breakthrough in terms of scaling up AM for production. Now that certification precedents are being set for every branch, at the same time that the digitalization infrastructure for military supply chains has started to be put into place, realistic potential has emerged for exponential growth rates. If there’s one organization that knows how to grow things at an exponential rate, it’s the DoD.
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