US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Isaak Martinez/DVIDS
- The Navy recently outfitted the amphibious assault ship USS Essex with a high-speed 3D printer.
- The Navy and Marines use it to print spare parts for drones.
- 3D printing is seen as a way to reduce the inventory of spare parts on a warship, while still maintaining easy access to them.
One of the largest US Navy warships now uses a 3D printer, allowing the crew to quickly produce spare parts for drones. The service hopes additive manufacturing technology will save it time and money, by reducing the need to stock spare parts, especially when a ship is at sea. It thinks 3D printers could be a day become a standard on all warships.
The amphibious assault ship USS Essex is one of the largest warships in the fleet. Designed to carry Marines into combat, the ship is 831 feet long and displaces 40,000 tons when fully loaded. That’s a lot of ships, not to mention manned and unmanned aircraft, landing craft, and the equipment of the Marines on board. To keep Essex and her embarked Marines in top form, the ship is usually stocked with ample spare parts to sustain both the ship and a force of up to 5,000 Marines for up to 30 days.
Keep plenty of spares for… pretty much everything is expensive and takes up a lot of storage space, which warships don’t have much of. Storing spares is a guessing game and if the services get it wrong during a six-month patrol at sea, the mission can suffer. If a vessel runs out of spares, it could be forced to airlift them, fend for themselves, or simply lose capacity altogether until the next port call.
This largely explains the US Navy’s interest in 3D printing. The service has been experimenting with so-called additive manufacturing since 2014, when it installed an ABS printer on Essex. The Navy used the printer to download print files from satellite and then print the weapons for a small quadcopter drone.
✅ Drone powerhouse
Now in 2022, Essex received a newer, faster printer capable of more detail that can print metal parts from materials like aluminum; that means it can create things like “heat sinks, housings, fuel adapters, purge air valves, valve covers, etc,” according to a marine Press release. Warships typically have their own machine shops to produce parts, but “have never been able to manufacture anything with the precision and complexity that this new 3D printer will provide,” says Jonah Waage, tech tech. 2nd class aviation electronics, in the release.
A video of February 2022 shows a Lulzbot TAZ Draft Horse printer in action on board Essex. The printer is used to make aerilon mounts for a Stalker XE drone. The printing took place during Noble Fusion Exercisea joint air-land-sea exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea.
As 3D printing advances and the Department of Defense becomes more comfortable with the technology, its military uses will only grow. Today, the Pentagon prints relatively minor items, but as printers progress, they will eventually be entrusted with complex and critical pieces. This is especially important for parts used in older equipment, including aircraft, which the manufacturer no longer produces. If a maintenance unit has the correct specifications, it can simply turn on a 3D printer and print whatever it needs, reducing the wait time from weeks or months to just hours. The process is also significantly cheaper.
The military sees additive manufacturing as an essential tool to support forward deployed forces. Imagine one day a ship carrying plug-in engines, avionics and payload packages for simple surveillance drones, then printing the wings and fuselages on demand. Instead of carrying several large drones on a ship like the USS Essex, the Navy and Marines could print and assemble them on demand. Thanks to 3D printing, in the near future, every US Navy warship could become a giant spare parts warehouse, an armament factory or an aircraft assembly plant.