Additive Manufacturing in the Navy: State of the Technology

BY LT JASON T. RAY, SC, USN, STAFF OFFICER, OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS N41

Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3-D Printing is a process where an object is fabricated layer-by-layer in a wide variety of methods and materials to produce items ranging from small plastic trinkets to complex titanium fuel injection nozzles. The technology rode the hype cycle wave over the last 24 months and now the reality of its capabilities and limitations have materialized.

While AM may not have lived up to the initial hype, the Navy has never been clearer on the steps to achieve the milestones necessary to implement the technology. Some of these goals include the development of a digital thread to serve as a backbone for enabling the necessary data flows in support of the use of AM, the qualification of AM produced metal flight-critical parts, and a repeatable process to identify and qualify good candidates for AM. We must stay the course and continue to investigate how AM can be employed to support mission readiness in a constrained fiscal environment.

Additive Manufacturing is Challenging

The process requires high-tech hands-on machines that require calibration by manufacturing experts for each print to ensure consistency. A number of variable factors play into the success of a “print” including: the integrity and accuracy of the digital file, the composition and quality of the raw material, the “printer’s” consistency, the required “post-print” processing and machining, and the ability to perform non-destructive tests for quality assurance of the final product. If one or more of these factors is not synchronized or functioning properly, it jeopardizes reliability of the final product, deeming it unsuitable for use due to the risk associated with potential failure. Despite these challenges, the Navy must continue to strategically invest in AM technology, while deliberately collaborating across inter-Navy silos and the Department of Defense to leverage and build upon ongoing efforts.

OPNAV N4 as the Navy’s AM Lead

In 2013, the Chief of Naval Operations designated OPNAV N4 as the lead to develop, de-conflict, and manage the Navy’s additive manufacturing efforts. To support this mission, OPNAV created a milSuite site for all silos to interface and share AM research and information. The site was introduced to address the collaborative challenges the Navy faced as an organization with much geographic and mission related dispersion. (https://www.milsuite.mil/book/groups/navy-additive-manufacturing/overview)

In addition to the milSuite site, the annual Naval Additive Manufacturing Technology Interchange conference was created to bring leaders and subject matter experts from around the organization together to discuss progress and milestones. With the understanding that AM is advancing quickly, it is imperative that we maintain communication and evolve our strategy not to shackle us to a single innovation, rather continue to capitalize on the most recent technological advancements.

Several Organizations Furthering AM

It is important to acknowledge that we are not the only organization trying to use AM to rid obsolescence and increase flexibility in our supply chains to support the Warfighter. The Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, National Research Laboratories and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are some of the organizations also working to further AM technology.

Collectively, we need to focus on developing the functionality – such as creating a rapid and repeatable process for the qualification of additively manufactured parts – that allows us to leverage private capital investments in the development of new manufacturing capabilities by companies of all sizes in our defense industrial base.

Points to Consider in Support of this Concept:

AM-focused Acquisition Strategy and Contract Language – Develop a standardized format for technical data packages to facilitate the acquisition of AM parts. In the interim, contracts must include language that provides the flexibility to purchase data rights for AM candidate parts in a common file format and cost effective manner.

  • Digital Thread – Build a digital library where Navy owned 3-D CAD files are securely stored in a format consistent with current technology that is easily provided to defense manufacturers for future procurement.
  • Qualification of Parts and Manufacturers-Work to improve our current inability to rapidly qualify traditional aerospace manufacturers and parts. If not addressed this will only further perpetuate obsolescence as AM becomes a common tool across manufacturing operations in our industrial base.

The Future

If the Navy cannot qualify AM parts, we will never be able to procure them. Therefore it is recommended we continue to collectively fortify our understanding of the capabilities and limitations of AM as the technology progresses. This will facilitate cost-effective investments that grow our industrial base to improve the sustainability of mission readiness for the Warfighter.

November/December 2015