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China’s PLA Navy Deploys 3D Printers Onboard Warships to Replace Small Parts

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China is famously secretive in some of its bigger plans, not unveiling big military movements or construction techniques before they happen – if at all — in detail. While we’re growing more familiar every day with huge news of new 3D printers and applications in the West, China’s plans for and usage of additive manufacturing techniques remain something of a mystery.

3D printer at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi photo by Xinhua

Chinese-made 3D printer at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi (photo: Xinhua)

We do know that China has been developing 3D printers since 2001, particularly for use in their military. The technology is utilized largely for prototyping, molding, repair of small parts, and weapons systems throughout the various branches of the country’s military. Examples we’ve heard about include the C-919, the first large passenger plane from China, which includes designs that were developed with the use of a 3D printer, including the front windshield frame. Additionally, the J-15 carrier-based fighter jet used 3D printing to create new small parts to repair training flight damages, according to Sun Cong, who designed the fighter. Other aircraft also benefit from the fast-growing technology in China, including other fighter jets like the J-16 and J-31, as well as the J-20 stealth fighter.

Today, we also learn that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is utilizing 3D printers on their warships. The deployed 3D printers will be used to replace crucial small parts, and one destroyer has already taken advantage of the technology.

800px-Naval_Ensign_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svg

China’s PLA Navy flag

Last week, a wheel gear on the Harbin broke. The New Year’s Eve incident occurred in the Gulf of Aden, where the Harbin has been involved in counterpiracy maneuvers alongside the US Navy since mid-2013. The Harbin is a Type 052D destroyer; having the engine down in the far-off Arabian Sea, thousands of miles from parts suppliers in the ship’s home country, was a problem that required a fast solution.

The Harbin includes a compartment that houses a computer, 3D printer, casting equipment, and materials – the massive ship is fully equipped to create its own spare parts. With the breaking of the engine bearing, the Harbin was effectively stranded in an area known for its piracy problem – not exactly an ideal situation. Through use of the on-board 3D printer, though, sailors were able to create the replacement part in mere hours, getting the Harbin up and running and back to maneuvers. A Chinese military expert noted to the China Global Times that the use of 3D printing produces parts that, while not the most precisely crafted, save significant time and money during PLA Navy operations.

harbin

The Destroyer Harbin

In addition to the Harbin, we’ve also heard that another PLA Navy ship used 3D printing to replace a transmission gear tooth; it seems China’s military is recognizing and implementing 3D printing for repair jobs in an increasing way.

Other militaries around the world — including the US Navy — are also using 3D printing for on-ship repairs and other parts creations. It looks like this convenient technology is here to stay. Do you agree? What other uses do you foresee in military applications? Let us know your thoughts over at the Chinese Navy Repairs Destroyer with 3D Printing forum thread at 3DPB.com.

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