U.S. Navy Print-a-Thon takes 3-D printing to new dimension

U.S. Navy Print-a-Thon takes 3-D printing to new dimension

Machinery Repairman 2nd Class Lisa Petyak works on a project with the 3-Dimensional printer inside the Southeast Regional Maintenance Center’s Fabrication Laboratory. Sailors use the Fab Lab’s state-of-the-art tools and equipment including laser cutters, routers, and 3D printers to manufacture high-demand parts and unique components much faster and at a lower cost than purchasing through the supply system. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott Curtis/Released)

By Rindi White 

The list of things you can print with a 3-D printer is endless but things like keychains, coasters and coin sorters are probably pretty high up on the “most often printed” items. 

But what happens when the U.S. Navy gets into 3-D printing technology? The print queue includes things like a tactical quadcopter that can be used in vessel boarding, search and seizure operations, or a six-man submersible delivery vehicle. Or a key component for a solid fuel ramjet, which is used in high-speed strike weapons.

The U.S. Navy held a 3-D Print-a-Thon in March at the Pentagon, in which 20 naval organizations from across Naval Research and Development presented 3-D printed innovations. An article from the Department of Defense Science blog said the event demonstrated the Navy’s enhanced warfighting capabilities and readiness, but also showed innovations that can save the Navy money.

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division of China Lake, California, for example, printed an air inlet, a key component for the ramjet. According to the Department of Defense, the air inlet is critical to the ramjet’s performance, but conventional manufacturing methods can be limiting. By using metal additive manufacturing, the device can be printed in three days. Even better, a traditional ramjet, commercially produced, costs about $14,000, but a 3-D printed one, using powdered steel to create it and a laser to fuse it together, rings in at about $6,000.

“Additive manufacturing is a potential game-changing technology for naval warfare. It accelerates capability development and will increase our readiness by reducing obsolescence or long lead time issues,” said John Burrow, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation.

A team from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Maryland, produced the largest 3-D printed object in the Department of Defense: a 30-foot long submersible Seal Delivery Vehicle that can covertly move sailors from one place to another while being towed behind a ship. The vehicle completely floods inside, so the crew must wear scuba gear on board, the article states. It was made of chopped carbon and took two days to print.

Engineers from Carderock said their goal was to be able to craft their own Seal Delivery Vehicle. SDVs are used for covert missions to areas typically off-limits to U.S. Navy SEALs. Engineers involved with the 3-D printed SDV program said the one exhibited in March is the first of many they plan to print, so they can perfect the design and hone the printing process.

A 3-D Robotics X-8M quadcopter, similar to the types of unmanned aerial systems to be used at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division Aviation Unit. (Photo courtesy: UVA Systems International)


A team from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme, California, showed off a quadcopter that had been printed aboard the U.S.S. Essex three years ago. At the time, researchers wanted to show how additive manufacturing might be used aboard a naval ship. 

According to the Department of Defense article, researchers worked with the fleet to set the requirements of the tactical operation for the quadcopter, then emailed files and assisted in the assembly and flight demonstration of the quadcopter in the Essex’s hangar bay.

It took about eight hours to print the quadcopter. It’s designed to fly over enemy vessels to show sailors what’s inside. Printing cost about $800. Want one of your own? It was saved as an open-source file, meaning anyone can use it to print his or her own drone.

Under the category of efficiency, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, Virginia, team printed an air amplifier to more quickly fill Zodiac boats. The air amplifier cost less than $100 to make and about three hours to print. It uses the Venturi effect (a reduction in fluid pressure resulting when air flows through a constriction section) to accelerate the compressed air as it flows into the boat. Using the amplifier means a Zodiac can be filled with 66 percent less compressed air.

At the Sea Air Space Maritime Convention held in Maryland at the beginning of April, the U.S. Navy booth demonstrated how replacement parts and other supplies could be printed on board ships at sea, to make them more self-reliant.

The Department of Defense article notes that 3-D printing technology also makes it possible for new designs to be created that aren’t available through traditional manufacturing methods.

“I was excited to see all the examples of how our Department of the Navy workforce is exploring and implementing this technology,” Burrow said.

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