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

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The Oklahoma, a Virginia-class submarine, relies on various components to maintain its functionality and safety while submerged in water. One seemingly insignificant part, the deck drain assembly, actually plays a crucial role in preserving the submarine’s integrity. Recently, shipbuilders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries achieved a significant milestone by successfully utilizing additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to fabricate a replacement deck-drain part for the Oklahoma.

This breakthrough in manufacturing technology opens up new possibilities for submarine repair in the future. The 3D-printed part, made from copper-nickel, still requires some additional machining before installation. However, the fact that it was created on land using additive manufacturing methods demonstrates the potential for easier and more efficient on-demand parts manufacturing in the naval industry.

The adoption of additive manufacturing has gained traction across various sectors, including hobbyist, commercial, and industrial applications. The ability to rapidly prototype and refine parts is immensely valuable, but there is still a significant gap between designing a printed part and ensuring its functionality and durability in real-world scenarios. By printing parts on land for repairs, naval suppliers can verify the viability of the technology while addressing immediate repair needs.

In the context of naval vessels, precision and compatibility are of utmost importance. Every part must fit precisely within predetermined parameters to maintain the ship’s watertight and airtight qualities, which are particularly critical for submarines. Moreover, ships have limited onboard storage space for spare parts, whether for emergency situations or routine maintenance. By leveraging onboard printers and printing facilities at ports, the Navy can enable repairs at sea and ensure the availability of new parts for docked vessels.

The U.S. Navy has been exploring the potential of 3D printing for over a decade as a means to streamline its logistical operations. The concept is relatively straightforward—rather than stockpiling pre-assembled parts, storing raw materials in an undifferentiated form and printing them on-demand significantly enhances flexibility. However, the Navy has invested considerable effort into minimizing errors in the manufacturing process to ensure the reliablity of printed parts.

Lieutenant General Steven Rudder of the Marine Corps spoke about the Navy’s progress in additive manufacturing, stating that the technology is still in its early stages. While there are certain parts that require airworthiness approval, non-airworthy components are relatively simpler to produce. Rudder also highlighted the Air Force’s advancements in metal printing, which is expected to gain significant traction in the coming years.

To further enhance the capabilities of 3D printing in the Navy, the exploration of onsite printers onboard ships has been undertaken. In 2021, the Navy tested a large-scale 3D printer from Xerox, capable of producing aluminum parts. The aim is to not only have printers stationed at ports but also to have them readily available on ships for on-demand spare part production while underway.

The U.S. Navy operates in confined spaces across the globe, managing supply chains that span vast distances. With bases and ports scattered worldwide, the ability to utilize additive manufacturing for repair and replacements brings significant advantages in terms of agility and operational efficiency. As additive manufacturing continues to evolve, its integration within the Navy’s maintenance and logistical operations will undoubtedly revolutionize the way naval vessels are supported and repaired, ensuring their readiness and longevity in the face of various challenges.

In conclusion, the successful 3D printing of a deck-drain assembly for the Oklahoma submarine marks a significant milestone in the additive manufacturing journey within the Navy. This achievement demonstrates the potential for on-demand part production and repair, ultimately enhancing the operational readiness and longevity of naval vessels. As the technology continues to advance, additive manufacturing will undoubtedly play a crucial role in transforming naval supply chains and maintenance procedures.

When it comes to innovation and technological advancements, the military is often at the forefront. They are constantly looking for ways to improve their equipment, increase efficiency, and reduce costs. And one area where they have recently found success is in 3D printing.

In 2022, the US Navy decided to test out the capabilities of 3D printing on both land and at sea. They installed an identical printer on the USS Essex, a ship that is classified as a Landing Helicopter Dock. The goal was to see if the conditions of being on the ocean, with the humidity and rocking waves, would produce different results than the same parts made on land.

The results were impressive. The 3D printer on the USS Essex was able to produce high-quality parts that met the Navy’s standards. This was a significant finding because it meant that the Navy could potentially print their own parts while out at sea, reducing the need for long and costly supply chains.

One particular area where this technology could be extremely beneficial is on submarines. Space is already at a premium on these vessels, so being able to print parts as needed would be a game-changer. And while submarines may not be able to print their own parts, the small yet vital pieces needed for ship operation can still be made to order using 3D printing.

This is a huge advantage for the Navy. Every part of a ship may seem mundane until it doesn’t work and needs to be replaced. And when that happens, it becomes crucial to have a quick and efficient way to obtain the necessary parts. 3D printing provides just that.

The success of this experiment led Xerox to ultimately sell its 3D printing division to another company in the additive manufacturing space, cementing the credibility and potential of this technology.

Kelsey D. Atherton, a military technology journalist, has been following these advancements closely. He covers a range of topics, including uncrewed robotics, communications systems, and the technologies that go into planning and mitigating war. His expertise and insights have provided valuable information on the role of 3D printing in the military.

In conclusion, the Navy’s experiment with 3D printing on land and at sea has shown great promise. The ability to print parts while out at sea has the potential to revolutionize the way the military operates, particularly on submarines. The mundane yet crucial pieces needed for ship operation can be made to order, ensuring that the Navy is always prepared for any situation. And with the continued advancements in 3D printing technology, the possibilities for the military are endless.

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