A part for a nuclear submarine was 3D-printed by shipbuilders.

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Revolutionizing Submarine Repair: The Rise of 3D Printing

A crewed submarine is an incredible feat of engineering, serving as a means to preserve a bubble of air underwater while keeping the vast ocean at bay. Every aspect of submarine design, from propulsion to sensors to controls, must serve this purpose. Even seemingly insignificant parts, such as a deck drain assembly, play a crucial role in maintaining the submarine’s integrity. This is why the recent breakthrough in additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, has captured the attention of shipbuilders.

On September 25, General Dynamics Electric Boat, in collaboration with Huntington Ingalls Industries, proudly announced their success in 3D printing a part for the Virginia-class submarine Oklahoma. While the printed part, a deck drain, still requires some machining for refinement before installation, this achievement marks a significant step towards easier, on-demand repairs for submarines in the future. The ability to manufacture replacement parts utilizing 3D printing technology opens up exciting possibilities for the naval industry.

The appeal and utility of additive manufacturing extend beyond submarines, encompassing hobbyist, commercial, and industrial sectors. Its ability to rapidly prototype parts and refine them through physical approximations is incredibly advantageous. However, there is still a notable leap between exploring a part through a printed design and producing a printed component capable of fulfilling the demanding requirements of a completed piece. The successful printing of parts on land for repair purposes helps naval suppliers demonstrate the workability of this technology while addressing immediate needs.

Precision is crucial when it comes to submarine repair. Every part must fit precisely within set parameters to ensure the vessel remains watertight and airtight where necessary. Furthermore, the limited space available on ships, especially submarines, emphasizes the importance of stockpiling spare parts for emergencies or routine repairs. Onboard printers can facilitate repairs while at sea, while printers at ports can ensure the availability of new parts for docked vessels.

The United States Navy, operating globally with bases and ports spread across the world, faces unique logistical challenges. Managing supply chains in locations as far apart as Spain and Guam necessitates innovative solutions. For the past decade, the Navy has been exploring 3D printing as a means to alleviate this burden. The premise is simple: if raw materials for various parts can be stored without differentiation and produced as needed for repairs, the flexibility and efficiency of the supply chain increase exponentially. However, perfecting the process of creating parts with minimal errors has been a focus of the Navy’s research efforts.

Lieutenant General Steven Rudder of the Marine Corps shared insights on the Navy’s progress in this field during an interview with USNI News in 2018. He acknowledged that the implementation of additive manufacturing is still in its early stages, particularly in terms of obtaining airworthiness approval for certain parts. However, non-airworthy parts have proven easier to produce. Rudder predicted that additive manufacturing, both in industry and Fleet Readiness Centers, would gain significant traction and that the Air Force is ahead in metal printing technology.

The Navy’s exploration of 3D printing has not been limited to port facilities. There is a growing interest in having printers onboard ships, enabling the printing of spare parts while underway. In 2021, the Navy tested a large-scale 3D printer, capable of producing parts in aluminum, at a base on land. In 2022, an identical printer was installed on board the USS Essex, a testament to the Navy’s commitment to further developing the potential of 3D printing within their operations.

The integration of 3D printing technology into submarine repair has the potential to revolutionize the industry. The ability to manufacture replacement parts on demand, both on land and at sea, brings newfound flexibility and efficiency to naval operations. As additive manufacturing continues to advance, the possibility of reducing logistical challenges, ensuring the availability of spare parts, and streamlining the repair process becomes increasingly tangible.

The successful 3D printing of a deck drain for the Virginia-class submarine Oklahoma serves as a testament to the progress made in this field. General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries have laid the groundwork for future advancements and innovations in submarine repair, marking a new era of on-demand, customized parts for naval vessels. With continued investment and research, the dream of onboard printers and streamlined supply chains may soon become a reality, ultimately bolstering the Navy’s capabilities and enhancing their global presence.

Blog Post – Unleashing the Power of 3D Printing in Marine Engineering

In the realm of marine engineering, innovation is the key to success. As technology continues to advance, so does the potential for revolutionary ideas that can transform the way we build and operate vessels. One such innovation that has caught the attention of maritime experts is the concept of 3D printing.

Traditionally, shipbuilders have relied on traditional manufacturing methods to construct the numerous components required for a seaworthy vessel. However, the advent of 3D printing has opened up a world of possibilities by allowing the fabrication of complex parts in a matter of hours, rather than weeks.

Recently, a fascinating experiment took place on board a US Landing Helicopter Dock, a vessel that serves as a floating naval base. The experiment involved testing the viability of 3D printing on the high seas, under the harsh and dynamic conditions unique to oceanic environments. This experiment aimed to explore whether the humidity and constant rocking waves would produce different results compared to the same parts made on land.

Printers were set up both at sea and on land, and parallel trials were conducted to gauge the efficiency and reliability of 3D printing in these contrasting settings. The results were awe-inspiring, showcasing the immense potential of additive manufacturing at sea. Notably, Xerox, a major player in the 3D printing industry, sold its 3D printing division to another company specializing in additive manufacturing, indicating the growing significance of this technology.

In the context of building submarines, space is an invaluable resource. Therefore, the concept of 3D printing becomes even more crucial in this subaqueous domain. One specific application that caught the attention of marine engineers was the manufacturing of drain parts using additive manufacturing techniques. These seemingly mundane components are vital for the smooth operation of a submarine. When a single part fails, the entire vessel’s functionality can be compromised.

The ability to produce custom-made drain parts on-demand via 3D printing is a game-changer for marine engineering. While submarines may not be able to generate all their required parts independently, this innovative technology enables the production of small but crucial components that guarantee optimal ship performance. Every seemingly insignificant piece of a vessel becomes significant when it fails, emphasizing the importance of having a solution in place to swiftly replace these components and maintain operation efficiency.

The integration of 3D printing technology into the marine sector opens up a realm of possibilities. Complex components can now be fabricated swiftly and efficiently, reducing lead times and enhancing operational readiness. As the maritime industry continues to evolve, additive manufacturing will play an increasingly critical role in ensuring the sustainability, efficiency, and resilience of vessels at sea.

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