Naval Postgraduate School Opens Advanced Manufacturing Center as First Submarine Valve Assembly is 3D Printed

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The US Navy’s additive manufacturing (AM) activity saw a striking acceleration in 2023, but as I wrote in November of last year, the branch was just getting warmed up. Bearing that out, this has been an especially busy week for the Navy, with announcements of new capabilities in the realms of both R&D and production.

First, Wisconsin’s Hunt Valve, a division of longtime naval engine supplier Fairbanks Morse Defense (FMD), produced the first 3D printed valve assembly that will be installed on US Navy submarines, a 70-pound component printed in copper-nickel. It’s worth noting here that another organization that has had quite a busy week, Lincoln Electric, is collaborating with Hunt Valve to produce the assemblies. An organization that the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) manages, the Maritime Sustainment Technology and Innovation Consortium (MSTIC), awarded the contract to Hunt Valve.

Image courtesy of FMD

Additionally, the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education (CAMRE) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new NPS Advanced Manufacturing Center, in Monterey, California. The new facility already includes multiple kinds of metal 3D printing processes compatible with a half-dozen different metal materials, as well as a five-axis CNC machine and in-situ monitoring hardware.

In a press release about the opening of the new NPS Advanced Manufacturing Center, NPS Provost Scott Gartner said, “What we’re talking about here is a transformative change to the way we conceptualize the supply chains. What we’re talking about is the ship — and the fleets, who are nearby in a supporting capacity — provides the parts, as needed, to keep those ships operable, to keep our national defense secure. That’s transformative. The way to make that transformation work is to get all of these stakeholders working together in a kind of pressurized box, thinking about it. And that’s what we’re doing here. You’ve got the fleet, you’ve got the industry, you’ve got the academics, you’ve got other universities all working together — exactly the way that it’s supposed to go to develop innovative outcomes.”

Reinforcing that same concept, in a press release about the first 3D printed valve for US Navy submarines, VP of Aftermarket and Product Development at FMD, Andrew Pfister, said, “The utilization of [AM] assembly with copper-nickel for large valve production is a real step forward for our industry. …Innovative technologies such as [AM] are essential for building the submarine industrial base to overcome supply chain challenges. By scaling [AM], we can reduce shipping from other parts of the world and increase the speed of production at home — which positively impacts the Navy’s overall strategic goal to deliver a 300+ fleet.”

Image courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Edward Early via DVIDS

Relevantly, FMD recently acquired submarine components manufacturer AMMCON, based in Jacksonville, Florida, which worked with Huntington Ingersoll Industries and General Dynamic Electric Boat to 3D print the first deck drain assemblies for US Navy submarines.

The key takeaway here is that the US Navy is “learning as it goes”, and it’s doing so at an accelerated rate. Additionally, and relatedly, a feedback loop between R&D and production is solidifying. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, private industry has internalized these developments as demand signals and is responding in kind.

It is increasingly clear that, unlike in the 2010s, when the US military’s approach to AM largely seemed to involve throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck, in the 2020s, a buildup exemplified by strategic continuity is very much underway. Of course, the present era’s acceleration couldn’t happen without the preceding era of “pure research”: that is, the progress occurring now is due to the Department of Defense having determined exactly what “stuck” in the prior decade’s efforts.

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