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Repair Time Reductions On Submarines Through Additive Manufacturing

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Additively manufactured parts could drastically reduce the time required to perform repairs on board submarines and eliminate portions of the Navys bloated supply chain

The valve piece fit easily in my hand, and when I saw it, I was angry.  Somebody installed this part in 1988, and it had been just fine sitting untouched in the air system for nearly 30 years.  It served no purpose anymore, but when it started to leak, it held up my submarine’s schedule for a week.  Since we didn’t carry a replacement on board, all we could do was order a new part and wait.  Some manufacturer probably had to dust off an old milling machine to make us a nice, new piece, and we paid them handsomely.  With one AutoCAD file, we could have built a replacement part using additive manufacturing (AM) and fixed that valve the same day it broke at a lower cost.  Improving our process for troubleshooting and repairing critical components will be a huge driver for preventing fleet downtime and maximizing utilization of our most important assets, submarines and their crews.  The ability to create parts without an extensive supply chain would also drastically reduce the amount of storage space required on board a submarine, providing more room for equipment directly related to our missions.  The ability to make parts at sea could potentially be the difference between completing a mission critical to national security and coming home early.  This will also have the added benefit of allowing a submarine to maintain its ability to act independently if cut off from its supply chain in a time of war.  In addition to advantages for assets at sea, the Navy and its shipbuilding partners could realize significant cost savings associated with standardized, AM valves and equipment in the initial production of submarines and their long-term maintenance.

In the short term, the Navy has started a multitude of programs to develop the capacity to 3D print parts.  The Department of the Navy (DON) established the AM Implementation Plan and the “Print the Fleet” initiative[1] in 2014.  The AM plan seeks to “Enable end to end process integration of secure on-demand manufacturing.”[2]  Through this on-demand process, we will eliminate most of the supply chain from our process flow for performing critical troubleshooting, maintenance, and repair.  It will also allow for solution development at a unit level followed by information sharing between boats and shipyards, speeding up the fleetwide learning curve.  In the medium time horizon, “by the time we start rebuilding these shops over the next five to 10 years, I have no doubt that you’re going to see additive manufacturing be an integral part of a lot of the work that’s being done out there.”[3]  The shipyards major work stream is finding and fixing issues with submarines as they age, many of which were not anticipated by the original designers.  These problems have no easy solution and require the customization provided by AM.  The Navy is  planning the advanced AM capabilities it needs in its shipyards and manufacturing partners, but these technologies are not readily available to Sailors yet.  The service is not moving fast enough to deliver necessary technology to operational units.

Overall, the submarine force has lagged other communities in AM.  This year, “A prototype, 3-D printed-metal drain strainer orifice for a steam line will be installed on the carrier USS Harry S. Truman for a one-year test and evaluation trial.”[4]  One valve on one carrier is not enough.  The components produced by these AM machines have been tested in other similar industrial environments.  The Navy should be aggressively pursuing on-board testing of these technologies and rapidly shifting to 3D printed replacement parts as our ships age.  At Electric Boat (EB), the largest manufacturer of submarines, “Right now we’re using additive manufacturing, but we’re using it for non-ship parts only.”[5]  EB should be incorporating and testing AM parts immediately.  Building the capacity on newly constructed Virginia Class submarines will greatly enhance the organizational capability to produce replacement parts as the Virginias begin to age and require repairs.  Developing this capability is key to the long-term health of all future submarine classes.  To address the problem more rapidly, the Navy should leverage the Defense Innovation Unit to support emerging technology in the AM sector in addition to boosting its current investment in contracts with Lockheed Martin[6] and Concurrent Technologies Corporation.[7]  The large up-front cost of these investments will pay massive dividends in the long-run.

The major questions facing these initiatives are can the Navy adapt its supply chain to incorporate the AM technology fast enough?  And as we move into a future where technology including AM and AI becomes a regular part of day-to-day operations, what level of training and knowledge do the operators need in order to successfully complete their missions?

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[1]Naval Sea Systems Command, “Print the Fleet,” https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Portals/103/Documents/NSWC_Dahlgren/WhatWeDo/PrinttheFleet/InHouse_DNeck_Print_the_Fleet_Trifold.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[2] Department of the Navy (DON), “Additive Manufacturing (AM) Implementation Plan V2.0 (2017)” (PDF file), published May 4, 2017, downloaded from Defense Technical Information Center, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1041527.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[3] Megan Eckstein, “NAVSEA Looking for Early Wins as it Kicks Off 20-Year Yard Modernization,” USNI News, September 5, 2018, https://news.usni.org/2018/09/05/navsea-looking-early-wins-kicks-off-20-year-yard-modernization, accessed November 2018.

[4] “U.S. Navy Installs First 3D-Printed Metal Part Aboard a Warship,” published October 12, 2018, Maritime Executive, https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/u-s-navy-installs-first-3d-printed-metal-part-aboard-a-warship, accessed November 2018.

[5] Society of Manufacturing Engineers, “Q&A with Electric Boat on Defense Manufacturing,” published May 5, 2016,  http://sme.org/mfg42016-nedkaminski-qanda/, accessed November 2018.

[6] Joe Pappalardo, “How Putting A.I. Brains Into 3D Printers Will Change the Game for the Navy,” published October 1, 2018, Popular Mechanics, https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a23546501/us-navy-3d-printer-machine-learning-parts/, accessed November 2018.

[7] “Navy Awards Potential $6.4 Million Quality Metal Additive Manufacturing (Quality MADE) Contract to Concurrent Technologies Corporation,” press release March 27, 2018, on GlobeNewsire, https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2018/03/27/1453836/0/en/Navy-Awards-Potential-6-4-Million-Quality-Metal-Additive-Manufacturing-Quality-MADE-Contract-to-Concurrent-Technologies-Corporation.html, accessed November 2018.

6 thoughts on “Repair Time Reductions On Submarines Through Additive Manufacturing

  1. A. Ham – Thanks for the essay. I think the environment in which submarines operate (out in the sea) is very well suited to having the AM technology on board in case parts break during operation. When parts break down during operation, submarines can easily reproduce repair parts without having to go back to land to have the parts repaired. This should significantly expand the operation horizon for submarines.
    As you mentioned, as AM and AI are widely used across industries including the Navy, it would be important that we develop workforce who are skilled to be able to understand the new technologies and integrate them into company (organization) operations. For the Navy, these operators may not need to have the full in-depth knowledge of these technologies, but at least working knowledge of how to operate the AM machines. To prepare well for these upcoming changes, the Navy can consider having a separate but centralized command (across the Navy) where they focus on the new upcoming technologies (AI and AM included). Within this new command, they would have full knowledge of what new technologies are emerging and which technologies can be used most appropriately across different units / teams within the Navy.

  2. How often are the repairs on a sub some small part that can be easily produced by these type of machines?

    Granted I know very little about submarines but aren’t they extremely cramped is there enough room to house another machine and the materials it uses to make new parts?

    Are the parts made in a machine like this as durable as the pieces that it is replacing?

  3. I agree that the space and time constraints make additive manufacturing a natural fit for the unique environment of submarines! Is there a reason (beyond the large upfront investment) that 3D printing is only being used for non-ship parts with limited on-board testing? It seems like the plans are in place to introduce and integrate additive manufacturing into the repair and ship building process, but the technology has yet to diffuse to the Sailors or other personnel on the front lines. In that case, it might be worthwhile investing in technological training and development for the workforce, opening access to additive manufacturing processes across the organization. While contracts with external organizations are valuable and will help to speed along delivery of service and parts, providing the technical knowledge to employees across the Navy will help ensure the sustainability of the program.

  4. Super interesting! I completely agree with the clear arguments you make here around efficiency, cost, and reducing fleet downtime. Do you think there are national security risks to having the granular design specifications for submarines and other major vessels stored in AutoCAD format? My initial thought stems from foreign hacking into computer systems — if this information is distributed across many specialized manufacturers, the risk of a full vessel design being lifted seems smaller. The alternative is that all this information is already digitized, in which case there does not appear to be much of a downside to what you propose!

  5. What an interesting article! I think the major tradeoff here is safety versus cost. Although the costs of replacing different naval equipment would be much cheaper, I worry that using AM technology might not be as safe as using traditional material. If there is a way to ensure the safety of parts created using AM technology is just as safe, and the only difference between the two options is cost, I can see this technology becoming prevalent in the Navy. I’m curious to know if other branches of the military, it was mentioned that other industries, have adopted this technology and if so, if there have been any downsides.

  6. Thank you very much Alexander for this article, I have always been fascinated by submarines and how they operate. You raise very interesting questions and I see the value additive manufacturing could add to optimize the process for troubleshooting and maintenance. I am assuming that this could only be used to print/construct relatively small parts given how limited the space in a submarine is (or at least I’d imagine to be). I wonder how big are the parts that usually require replacement or their malfunction would cause downtime. Also, while this technology could save a lot of time and effort, if its rate of utilization is low then we need to take into consideration the intangible cost of machine and marine idle time.

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