Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has big plans. Obviously, as the Maryland-based organization provides the US Navy with “full life-cycle support of naval aviation aircraft, weapons and systems operated by Sailors and Marines.” Since its establishment in 1966, NAVAIR has sought to provide only the best aircraft, equipment, and resources to not only ‘arm with confidence’ the US’ forces but to ensure “they succeed in every mission and return safely home.”
Not content with simply a that-will-do attitude, the team at NAVAIR strives for only the best in every component they stand behind–and that list of inventory will now extend into the high-tech realm of additive manufacturing. Within the next three years–specifically in two years and seven months–NAVAIR is planning to introduce a flight-critical metal component in a flight-ready aircraft. This usage will then eventually have a broader reach, into ships, submarines, and as technology continues even further, uses can also extend to bioprinting to aid injured personnel and even to producing ammunition and explosives.
Liz McMichael, NAVAIR’s additive manufacturing integrated product team lead, is optimistic, as well as realistic, regarding the future of additive manufacturing’s place in the Navy. While she certainly sees the place of 3D printing in the future of Navy technology, she knows that it won’t be overnight.
“AM is a revolutionary technology,” said McMichael last August. “It has the potential to radically change how the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, our partners and allies develop, produce and support their platforms and systems.”
NAVAIR has already been working with plastic and polymer components created via additive manufacturing, as well as some non-critical metal parts. This stage-by-stage process has enhanced the understanding and development of additive manufacturing processes in the field, and on the sea, for Navy uses.
This past Wednesday, April 15th, at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition and conference in Maryland, officials from the Navy spoke to the potential of 3D printing in Navy uses, including the flight-critical components to be developed by NAVAIR.
“In the field of advanced manufacturing – 3D printing – there are innumerable potential applications throughout our Navy and Marine Corps,” said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in prepared remarks at Sea-Air-Space on Wednesday. “The only limit to what this new technology can do for us is our imagination.”
The ultimate hope is to eventually get 3D printers onboard warships, as well as on Navy bases, cutting the requirement for huge Navy stock stores of components that may or may not ever be needed, but must be kept on-hand just in case. By being able to print parts on-demand, money spent and storage space and weight could all be reduced on ships and other craft, many of which are aging and more frequently require replacement parts.
Of course, especially where metal 3D printing is concerned, there are still technological hurdles to be overcome. Because critical components in any craft have a direct impact on the survival of US service personnel during missions, flights, and time at sea, a huge number of technical standards are in place to ensure proper functionality. Metal additive manufacturing has posed problems in that metal materials are affected by the printing process; McMichael noted that, for example, a stainless steel hydraulic manifold that is printed on its side will possess different quality characteristics than will one printed lying flat, due to the layer-by-layer printing technique that causes the molten steel to cool unevenly.
Manufacturing techniques aside, there remains the larger question: is this viable?
“Do we want to turn our warships into manufacturing ships … How do we forward deploy [the technology]? Do we want to forward deploy it?” said William Frazier, chief scientist for air vehicle engineering and senior scientist for materials engineering at NAVAIR. “These are issues that can only be answered after the technical possibilities have been [established].”
Once the technology has been proven–and all signs point to that being more an eventuality than a question itself, more a ‘when’ than an ‘if’–it will have huge implications for the deployment of defense craft. In addition to spare parts like gaskets, additive manufacturing has the potential to also produce ammunition. According to McMichael, inert materials could be carried aboard ships and then, via AM techniques, produced into explosives, hazards of carrying live rounds would be significantly reduced. This would also lighten the carrying requirements, as warheads would be able to be manufactured and assembled on-site.
An additional consideration that must be taken into account is what onboard 3D printers would mean for personnel, as it could alter the requirements for a crew. McMichael notes that contractors, rather than sailors, would most likely be the first at-sea manufacturers: “Most likely we would do this the way we do any source work.”
“Longer term anything is possible, but as we move forward we have to kind of take baby steps – here’s how we demonstrate it, here’s how we start to transition it,” said McMichael. “We need qualified people. I do not want to say three years from now we’ll have sailors off printing these things. We’re not there yet.”
Let us know your thoughts on the US Navy’s use of 3D printing in the NAVAIR to 3D Print Flight-Critical Components forum thread over at 3DPB.com.