For the Navy, one of the Holy Grails (we have quite a few) aboard a ship would be a “Star Trek” replicator for replacement parts.
You are afloat and you need a new part. The aviation or machinery technician goes to the supply chief who enters the bar code into the computer; the chief comes back later in the day and the part is waiting.
Will this happen? Absolutely. We just need to ask when we will be able to deliver the capability: Is it in five years or 50? Or will we have to wait (like “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry thought) another 250 years? I don’t see us manipulating atoms to make replacement parts anytime soon, but the next 30 years will see a dramatic increase in our ability to create parts on demand.
The new buzz term in the air is additive manufacturing. Also known as “3-D printing,” additive manufacturing builds desired parts from scratch, or “grows” them, by adding layers of material on top of each other. Traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques shape parts by removing material; an example is forming a gearbox cover out of a billet of aluminum by machining it to shape.
The potential for additive manufacturing to positively impact the U.S. Navy is unlimited. But like my kids often ask on long car rides, “Are we there yet?”
There has been a lot of interest in the blogosphere and popular press on this topic; the ability to easily make a part captures the imagination at many levels. Separating hype from reality, though, can be challenging. There is no doubt that additive manufacturing is important and game-changing. However, like any new technology, at this early moment in its development, additive manufacturing hype is just that – hype.
Why should the Navy care?
I grew up with a machine shop in the basement, and worked as a machinist, so I’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm out there about 3-D printing. Reflecting on it, I think it’s an expression of the natural yearning for homemade or craft goods. Not since the Vac-u-form from Mattel in the 1960s has there been a DIY machine that lets you make parts at home. Additive manufacturing is a key enabler of the make revolution, a reaction to the fact that very few people actually make anything anymore. Craft stores are almost gone. Few people, if any, do woodworking, metal fabrication, automobile repair or sewing today.
The small desktop additive manufacturing machine fills a (limited) manufacturing need, but as importantly, it also answers a yearning by a computer generation that wants desperately to make something. Until now, making things was capitally intensive and required special machines and learning. Additive manufacturing promises to make it so we don’t have to pay people to make our spare parts; we’ll make them ourselves.
For our Sailors, the ability to produce parts afloat will potentially allow them to take better ownership of the systems they use and maintain. Perhaps more importantly, though, low-cost additive manufacturing machines will allow our Sailors to rediscover the do-it-yourself nature that made the U.S. military so successful.
This ability to innovate on the fly could pay dividends both in the marketplace and as cultural modification.
The future looks bright
The future of additive manufacturing is as big as the sky – really. Even discounting the hype and stories about homemade rifle parts and Hollywood stars making automobile parts, the future is big.
Down the road, we can expect more materials, larger volumes, better predictability, easier certification and faster printing times at higher resolution. With time, we’ll see tightly controlled blending of materials. To fully capitalize on the advantages of carbon fiber, we’ll grow structures instead of gluing or bolting them together from different parts. Our vendors will increasingly capitalize on additive manufacturing as a piece – along with traditional methods – of the production process. Where it’s financially advantageous, they will look to additive manufacturing to produce not only prototype or limited production, but also full-scale production parts.
Overall, additive manufacturing is promising, it’s revolutionary, and it isn’t there yet. Resolution and accuracy concerns remain in the modeling process. Questions remain on the safety of the parts produced. The Navy has serious performance demands in its systems; can additive manufacturing parts do the job? Until we can answer “yes” with certainty, every time, safety will be an issue. Additive manufacturing will not be a panacea. But, additive manufacturing is here to stay and I say welcome!
How do you think the Navy could benefit from this technology?