We're not quite at the point where the U.S. Navy officials can press a button and have a giant 3D printer churn out new warships, but last month the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center issued a total of six new contracts focused on protecting military technologies by way of additive manufacturing.
The Navy named six vendors to develop novel prototype projects using 3D printing technology. The Naval Surface Warfare Center has stated that additive manufacturing could be leveraged by the military to help safeguard its internal systems from intrusion or attack.
Contracts have been issued through the Center's Crane Strategic & Spectrum Advanced Resilient Trusted Systems division (S2MARTS) – a Department of Defense organization focused on technology investments – to General Electric, Johns Hopkins APL, Lockheed Martin RMS, Mercury Systems, ReLogic Research, and Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. The terms of the contract have not been disclosed.
This also comes after another firm, MELD, was awarded a $1.5 million last March for metal 3D printing for the U.S. Navy's maintenance and repair operations.
The U.S. Army has also explored ways of using additive manufacturing to help with the production of titanium-armored tanks and vehicles.
3D Printed Navy
This month, the U.S. Navy announced that it would look to 3D printing for submarine parts, which could address the fragility of the existing industrial base. The service would pair suppliers unable to keep up with the demand with additive manufacturing companies that would print parts around the clock to boost the supply.
According to a report from Defense News, that would be aimed at the most fragile parts of the submarine industrial base: companies that do castings, forgings, and fittings
"That the Navy is using 3D-printed parts for submarines, including the new Columbia-class, is a huge milestone for the technology," said James Marques, associate analyst for aerospace, defense and security at international research analytics firm GlobalData Aerospace, Defense and Security, a leading data and analytics company. "There are incredibly stringent standards in place for the materials used in submarine construction, as it is one of the most complex and risk-sensitive military engineering projects."
Marques explained via an email that the printing of components could boost supply to pick up shortfalls in the submarine industrial base. GlobalData analysis also revealed that the United States is in a strong position domestically, with General Electric, Boeing, and Raytheon collectively owning over 1,500 patents in 3D printing.
"A shift towards additive manufacturing will also disrupt the market by introducing new opportunities for industrial cooperation and subcontracting," Marques said. "The U.S. Navy has stated its intention to pair existing vendors without printing capabilities with SMEs that can."
However, this could bring up new challenges, and expanding the use of 3D printing in naval shipbuilding will require some changes in the way navies approve material use and standards for their platforms.
"The potential payoffs are increased availability for vessels in the fleet and a long-term reduction in operations and maintenance costs," said Marques. "The U.S. Navy is looking at its next-generation submarines with additive manufacturing in mind, and this trend is spreading: the Royal Australian Navy is one of many to recently partner with industry to explore 3D printing for ship components."
Perhaps we'll get one step closer to simply pressing "print" and getting that new warship.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.