All aboard the 3D printing battleship! The U.S. Navy could soon use these these popular tech tools to shake up traditional supply chains and revolutionize maritime strategy.
According to Lieutenant Commander Michael Llenza, author of a recent commentary on the uses of 3D printing by the U.S. Navy, advances in this burgeoning technology could change the way sailors and Marines build and repair aircraft, obtain ammunition, design shelters, produce food and treat sickness and injury.
In the words of Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, 3D printing allows us to make "things into data and data back into things." For the U.S. Navy these "things" include spare parts for aircraft and printable drones.
"Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary," wrote Llenza.
While tomorrow's ships will probably not be able to make everything they need on board, they should be able to create at least some of their own parts, according to Llenza. And newer printers capable of creating objects from multiple materials should make for significant advances in how Navy ships are supplied.
"Perhaps closer at hand is a distributed global production network in which sailors and Marines send an email with a digital scan or design for a part they need and have it created at the nearest certified printer," wrote Llenza.
Llenza mentioned that the Navy of the future could even include floating factory ships that can take print-on-demand orders and churn out entire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
According to Llenza, a Virginia Tech lab has already designed and printed a UAV that can be folded up and stored in a backpack. And the University of Virginia recently printed a UAV controlled by an Android phone and used to shoot aerial imagery.
Llenza and his colleagues in the U.S. Army believe that printing ammunition isn't as far-fetched of an idea as one might think. According to researchers at Virginia Tech's 3D printing labs, future printers might be able to recreate not only ammunition casings, but also their energetic components. 3D printing might even make for better ammunition, the researchers said.
And while the large quantities of ammunition needed for the Navy might make total reliance on 3D printing impractical, Llenza said that the technology could at least be used to fill some supply gaps and perhaps customize ammunition for specific targets.
Llenza notes the use of the University of Southern California's Contour Crafting system to quickly produce a 2,500-square-foot structure, with cement walls three times stronger than those built using conventional construction methods.
The USC group and others have also demonstrated the ability to make 3D printed objects from local materials. According to Llenza, one group of researchers used a solar-powered 3D printer to create glass objects in the Sahara Desert using local sand. And the USC group used a synthetic substitute for lunar soil to demonstrate the kinds of 3D structures that could be printed on the moon.
"What if [the Navy] could harvest some of the minerals from the surrounding ocean to help create some of these parts?" wrote Llenza.
Printing medicine and food
Llenza cites the military's use of 3D printing to create better prosthetics for veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as evidence of the growing acceptance of this technology.
And experts in the field of regenerative medicine are already using living cells and 3D printers to re-create heart and lung tissue, as well as cartilage and bone, according to Llenza.
"Medical enhancement through bio-printing is one potential area of interest for the military," wrote Llenza. "Others include printing nonrejectable skin and bone grafts that subject the patient to much less trauma."
Other potential military uses of bio-printing include on-site medical care, testing the effects of bio-terrorism agents and irritants on printed lungs or skin and developing printable drugs and vaccines.
And the same technology that allows for the creation of printed human tissues could be used to re-create animal tissue, as well.
"Printed food, while admittedly not a terribly appealing concept, can shorten the Navy's logistical tail, reducing security risks, costs and energy consumption," wrote Llenza.
Llenza notes that a Navy utilizing the full potential of 3D printing is still a long way away. There are many obstacles that holding this technology back, including a lack of quality control and the relative insecurity of existing printing supply chains.
"But make no mistake," said Llenza, "This technology will become the way we manufacture."
However, Llenza notes the need for an overarching Navy Department strategy to make this high-tech future a reality.