In June, Wisconsin engineer Michael Guslick made headline news when used a 3D printer to fashion a working firearm modeled on the AR-15. Although it was later revealed that he had only printed the weapon’s receiver assembly, those in the Sea Services would do well to pay attention as the technology of 3D printing has the potential to affect a broad swath of the way the Navy and Marines do business. From naval architecture to logistics to the delivery of emergency medical care, the possible effects of 3D printing are far-ranging and profound.
At its most basic, 3D printing—or additive manufacturing—is about starting with nothing and using base materials to build up to a finished product. Most models use nozzle jets to spray the base materials layer-by-layer, not unlike the way inkjet printers create color photos on a sheet of paper. That contrasts with the traditional technique of subtractive manufacturing—starting with large blocks of the base material and whittling them down through various processes to get to the end product. According to an article in The Economist, that traditional route typically cuts away and wastes up to 90 percent of the base material—a cost made all the more dear when using high-grade metals for military components, such as titanium for aircraft. In the same article, The Economist reported that researchers at European aircraft manufacturer EADS, demonstrating the use of titanium powder to print the same parts, used just 10 percent of the raw material.
Smart defense companies already have begun to incorporate additive manufacturing into their production lines, and not only for the cost savings. If a printer is large enough the manufacturer can print components as a whole rather than requiring further assembly later. That allows designers to create both intricate internal structures to develop extremely strong parts, and more rounded shapes for system components such as ducting and piping, which increase system fluid-flow efficiency and eliminate unnecessary system volume. It also removes the need for brackets and flanges for handling and for surfaces to bolt or weld the pieces together. For those very reasons the Navy is already using “a number of printed parts such as air ducts” in F/A-18s. It is also for those reasons that the long-term trend will likely be toward larger 3D printers that can take on greater portions of the overall job. The shipyard of the future may well be an enormous printer.