Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Thursday, December 25, 2014
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NASA, the Navy to Streamline Supply Chains with 3D Printers 

It would seem that additive manufacturing is poised to take on an even greater load for U.S. government agencies, as the Navy and NASA have both announced big plans for 3D printers.

As it stands, the Navy’s aircraft carriers could benefit substantially from “floating factories” that could churn out replacement parts for fighter craft and for the carrier itself on the fly (so to speak).

But as you might imagine, space is limited on any aircraft carrier, which means that stockpiling spare parts or storing traditional manufacturing equipment is largely out of the question. Housing 3D printers and several tons of its substrate, metal powder, however, could save quite a bit of space. And the reasoning is this: because additive manufacturing’s raw materials can be stored in bricks, and the printing process is extremely efficient, there is no extra space that the equipment takes up, unlike, say, a room full of irregularly shaped UAV components, that houses more air than it does actual replacement parts.

And taking advantage of the 3D printing is exactly the intention that the Navy’s Lieutenant Commander Michael Llenza has just announced.

As much scrutiny as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been scrutinized over the past few months, drones are nonetheless an integral part of the defense strategy, often serving vital reconnaissance roles. And as Llenza pointed out, the ability to 3D-print a replacement part or a replacement drone altogether (as the University of Virginia has already done) would be invaluable to an aircraft carrier:

“The University of Virginia printed a UAV controlled by a relatively cheap Android phone whose camera was used to shoot aerial imagery. Designed for a top speed of 45 mph, the aircraft crashed on its first flight. The students just went back to the lab and printed out a replacement nose cone, a capability envied by any squadron maintenance officer. The eventual goal is a drone that flies right out of the printer with electronics and motive power already in place. An organic ability to print replaceable drones from ships, forward operating bases or during disaster relief operations to serve as targets or observation platforms could be a huge enabler for sailors and Marines.”

Still, there remain significant barriers to such military adoption of the additive manufacturing technology. As Gizmodo writer Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan points out, questions about the physical properties of 3D-printed objects means that printing critical machinery components is “out of the question.”  

Even if only some drone parts are made, and other prefabricated circuit boards and mission-critical parts take up their own space in the aircraft carriers of the near future, this has big implications for the future of warfare, particularly on the cyber front. On the one hand, those who are able to carry a 3D printer in tow will have the significant advantage of producing customized drones to meet very specific needs as they arise. But on the other, if custom-engineered CAD files are forwarded to various outposts on demand, the security of those files used to feed the 3D printer instructions would become paramount, as those plans could be altered or distributed if they were to fall into the wrong hands.

But paving the way for such a transformation is NASA, whose first space-bound 3D printer is slated to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) in August 2014. Once it has arrived, it will create the first ever objects manufactured off planet Earth.

The project, called 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment (3D Print for short) has been spearheaded by a partnership between NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the company Made in Space. Together, they aim to design an additive manufacturing production system that is able to repair ISS components, upgrade hardware and manufacture tools for the crew.

According to Made in Space officials, the printer will be able to use CAD files that have already been uploaded to crew members’ computers, while maintaining the ability to receive uplinked files directly from Earth.

The printer will then use a specially designed extrusion system that will deposit layers of polymers, composites or select metal alloys without relying on gravity to encourage the material to ‘drop’ into place.

Already, the team has printed and used a wrench that was manufactured during eight minutes of weightlessness aboard a modified Boeing 727.

Jason Dunn, Made in Space’s co-founder and chief technologist believes that the possibilities are much greater than many expect. In a presentation to NASA chief Charles Bolden and congressman Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Dunn estimated that more than 30 percent of the space station’s spare parts can be manufactured by the same printer the ISS will soon house.

And this isn’t the end game, either. 3D Print is actually meant as a sort of pilot for a more permanent space printing solution destined for the ISS in 2016, called the Additive Manufacturing Facility.

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