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Revolutionizing Naval Warfare: US Navy’s Ambitious 3D Printing Endeavor

In the ever-evolving world of manufacturing, 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, stands as an ongoing revolution. This transformative technology has the potential to fabricate complex objects, ranging from aerospace components to human organs, textiles, metals, buildings, and even food. Defined by ASTM International as the process of layering materials together based on three-dimensional model data, 3D printing has grown into a pivotal innovation. The United States Navy is at the forefront of this revolution, utilizing 3D printing across its entire fleet, from UAVs to submarines, weapons systems, and ammunition.


Printed Precision: The Advantages of 3D Printing in the Navy

Traditionally, naval operations are associated with immense logistics and supply chains. Maintaining and upgrading a fleet of ships, aircraft, and submarines involves extensive planning and resources. The introduction of 3D printing brings a host of benefits, starting with unparalleled efficiency and cost savings.

  1. Design Freedom: Unlike conventional manufacturing, 3D printing allows engineers to explore unconventional shapes and designs that may better serve the Navy’s needs, paving the way for groundbreaking innovations.
  2. Customization and Rapid Prototyping: The ability to create bespoke components on demand is a cornerstone of 3D printing. This feature permits the Navy to design, test, and produce parts with precision and speed. Whether it’s a unique drone component or a complex submarine valve, 3D printing streamlines the process from concept to implementation.
  3. Weight Reduction and Improved Performance: Additive manufacturing allows for the creation of lighter yet stronger components. This contributes to the Navy’s mission of enhancing fuel efficiency, speed, and maneuverability.
  4. Cost-Effective Manufacturing: Through 3D printing, the Navy is able to reduce production costs, especially when it comes to small and specialized components. This not only saves resources but also opens new opportunities for more cost-effective solutions.
  5. Enhanced Maintenance and Repairs: Naval vessels are subject to harsh environments, which can take a toll on their structural integrity. With 3D printing, maintenance and repair teams can swiftly replace damaged parts without the need for lengthy downtime or the logistics of shipping in replacements. This is a game-changer in ensuring the Navy’s assets remain mission-ready.
  6. Supply Chain Resilience: 3D printing reduces dependence on traditional supply chains. In times of conflict or emergencies, the Navy can rely on its ability to produce critical parts locally, negating the vulnerabilities associated with extended supply chains.


The Diverse Applications of 3D Printing in the Navy

The Navy’s 3D printing program extends across various facets of its operations:

1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): 3D printing enables the rapid development and deployment of UAVs customized for specific missions. These drones can serve roles ranging from reconnaissance to delivery, enhancing the Navy’s intelligence and logistics capabilities.

2. Submarines: Submarines operate in an unforgiving underwater environment where reliability is paramount. 3D printing simplifies the maintenance of these complex vessels. It also allows for the creation of specialized components that improve functionality and extend mission endurance.

3. Weapons Systems and Ammunition: Additive manufacturing’s role in weapons systems is transformative. It facilitates the creation of unique, lightweight, and highly durable firearms and other munitions. Additionally, it enables the rapid production of ammunition, ensuring a constant supply of critical resources.

4. On-Demand Spare Parts: The naval fleet is vast, comprising numerous ships and aircraft, each with a myriad of components. 3D printing offers a practical solution to the challenge of maintaining a comprehensive inventory of spare parts. When a specific component is needed, it can be produced on-site, reducing lead times and costs.

Vision for the Future: 3D Printing and the U.S. Navy

Navy officials, including Dr. John Burrow, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation, envision a future where 3D printers are deployed with Marines, installed aboard warships, and integrated into shore-based commands. This represents a fundamental shift in how the Navy conducts business, promising operational and technical potential that is set to “explode off the map.”

Government Support: Funding the 3D Printing Revolution

The U.S. government recognizes the significance of 3D printing in defense. The Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities allocated a substantial budget, with $13.2 billion set aside for 3D printing within the $639.1 billion proposed U.S. defense budget for 2018. The proposed bill highlights the substantial potential of additive manufacturing in transforming the industrial supply chain and providing new technological capabilities to the Department of Defense. It advocates for the establishment of Defense Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, increased deployment of 3D printers at tactical levels, and the potential to address demands for hard-to-find or obsolete parts.

3D Printing and the Third Offset Strategy

Marine Lt. Col. Howard Marotto emphasizes that additive manufacturing plays a central role in the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy. Leveraging this technology provides the Marines with the capability to produce customized parts, even on-site, for various applications, such as UAVs for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, aligning with the evolving needs of distributed operations.

Print-the-Fleet Initiative: Transforming Navy Operations

The “Print-the-Fleet” initiative by the US Navy is a forward-looking program aimed at integrating additive manufacturing (3D printing) technologies across various Navy operations. Its primary objectives include cost reduction, enhanced operational readiness, and fostering innovation through 3D printing, enabling the on-demand production of spare parts, prototypes, and custom equipment. This initiative encompasses various applications, including tooling, molding, repairs, prosthesis, cranial implants, and custom parts both on land and at sea.

This initiative has already achieved notable progress, establishing multiple 3D printing facilities on Navy ships and shore commands. Collaboration with industry partners is leading to advancements in 3D printing materials and techniques. The Navy’s application of 3D printing spans a wide range, from creating spare parts for aircraft, vehicles, and weapons to prototyping new military equipment. Custom equipment for individual sailors, tools, molds, medical devices, and even food production have been explored. Furthermore, there is a growing focus on utilizing 3D printing for more complex components, such as submarine hulls and ship decks, which could have a transformative impact on naval operations.

In 2022, the Navy initiated the “Additive Manufacturing Fleet Accelerator” program to facilitate small businesses in developing 3D printing technologies relevant to naval applications.

Additionally, in 2021, a 3D printer was installed on the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, for producing spare parts and components, underscoring the Navy’s commitment to harness 3D printing’s potential to drive cost efficiency, readiness, and innovation in its operations.

Pushing Boundaries: 3D Printing in Submarines

The latest developments within the “Print-the-Fleet” initiative include a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2023 for the development of a 3D printing system tailored for manufacturing submarine hulls, scheduled to become operational by 2025.

With the demand for maritime surveillance on the rise, the Navy has turned to 3D printing to expedite the development of underwater submersibles. The successful creation of a 3D-printed submarine hull, modeled after the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), showcases the technology’s potential to create vessels faster and with new design features. The use of 3D printing has cut production costs by up to 90%, making it a cost-effective and efficient solution for manufacturing complex components.

The US Navy’s 3D-printed submarine program has made substantial advancements in recent years. In 2023, a contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman for the development of a 3D printing system designed to manufacture submarine hulls, with an anticipated operational start date in 2025. A prototype 3D-printed submarine hull, constructed from carbon fiber composite in six sections and measuring 9.1 meters in length and 1.4 meters in diameter, is currently undergoing testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland.

Should these prototype hull tests prove successful, the Navy could potentially employ 3D printing for the production of submarine hulls across its fleet. This approach offers numerous advantages, including cost reduction, accelerated production timelines, and increased design flexibility. Recent developments in the program also encompass the exploration of 3D printing for other submarine components like propellers and rudders, as well as collaborations with industry partners to refine materials and processes for 3D printing submarine hulls and related elements. While the program is in its early stages, it holds the potential to transform how the Navy conceives, manufactures, and maintains its submarine fleet.


Drones: Unlocking New Possibilities

Drones have become a critical asset in modern naval operations. The U.S. Navy is harnessing 3D printing to explore innovative applications, such as 3D-printed drones for cost-effective surveillance and quick adaptability to mission requirements. The technology is reshaping the logistics of deployed naval forces, reducing supply chain constraints, and enhancing availability.

In 2023, the US military branches, including the Navy and Army, have made significant strides in adopting 3D printing technology for drone production. The Navy awarded AeroVironment a contract to develop a 3D-printed drone for maritime surveillance missions, set to be operational by 2025. The Army is also actively developing 3D-printed drones for various purposes, such as surveillance, reconnaissance, and resupply, while the Marine Corps employs 3D printing to create customized drone components, including propellers and wings. This approach enables rapid replacement of damaged parts and facilitates the production of drones with unique features and capabilities. Commercial companies like DroneDeploy are also embracing 3D printing for drones tailored to specific applications, exemplified by their “L4D” drone designed for mapping and surveying tasks.

3D printing’s impact on drone manufacturing is substantial, offering cost reduction, increased production speed, and the flexibility to craft tailor-made drones with distinctive attributes. One of the main challenges in this domain is the development of materials that are both strong and lightweight, a challenge that researchers are actively addressing. For instance, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have created a 3D printing material stronger than steel yet lighter than carbon fiber. Ultimately, 3D printing has the potential to democratize drone technology by making it more affordable, accessible, and adaptable across various military and civilian applications.

3D printing technology for the production of components in ballistic missiles

Since 2016, the US Navy has been at the forefront of employing 3D printing technology for the production of components in ballistic missiles. Notably, they successfully test-launched three Trident II D5 Fleet Ballistic Missiles equipped with 3D-printed connector backshells in March of that year. These connector backshells, vital for safeguarding cable connectors within the missile, are traditionally manufactured from aluminum alloy using conventional methods. However, Lockheed Martin engineers managed to 3D print these backshells in half the time it would typically take through traditional means.

The adoption of 3D printing for ballistic missile components offers several advantages. It substantially accelerates production, enhances design flexibility for intricate components, and proves cost-effective, particularly for small-scale production runs. Beyond the US Navy, other military forces like Russia and China are also exploring 3D printing for ballistic missiles. The technology’s potential lies in rendering ballistic missiles more affordable, reliable, and challenging to intercept. It reduces costs, accelerates production, facilitates complex designs, and decreases reliance on external suppliers, which collectively contributes to more efficient missile manufacturing.

The development of 3D-printed components for the Trident D5 missile system is a substantial advancement with far-reaching implications for the US Navy. The utilization of 3D printing has the potential to transform the entire process of designing, manufacturing, and maintaining missile propulsion systems. Its advantages include cost reduction, significantly expedited production, enhanced design versatility for complex components, and reduced dependence on external suppliers. This progress not only benefits the military but also serves as a notable milestone for the commercial 3D printing industry, demonstrating its capacity to produce high-performance components tailored to demanding applications.

The broader implications of this development are exciting, signaling the increasing role of 3D printing in revolutionizing the defense industry. As it continues to demonstrate its capabilities in producing critical components for military systems, 3D printing is poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of defense technology and manufacturing. The prospect of reduced costs, improved production efficiency, and innovative design possibilities holds promise for the defense sector’s evolution, highlighting the growing importance of additive manufacturing in military applications.

3D Printed Munitions: Meeting Lethality and Cost-Efficiency Goals

3D printing isn’t limited to components and drones; it extends to the creation of munitions. The Marine Corps’ experimentation with 3D-printed munitions demonstrates that this technology can produce cost-effective and lethal alternatives to traditionally manufactured munitions. The precision and control offered by 3D printing open up possibilities for tailoring munitions for specific targets, environments, and missions.

The Marine Corps’ Next-Generation Logistics has made significant strides in the field of 3D-printed munitions. They recently printed and successfully detonated an indirect fire munition at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head, Maryland, demonstrating that 3D-printed munitions can be more lethal than traditionally manufactured ones. Importantly, the technology offers precise control over the munition’s design, enabling tailoring of the blast, fragmentation, and other effects for specific targets, heights, collateral damage considerations, or environmental concerns. This advanced level of customization can be achieved more efficiently and cost-effectively through additive manufacturing, making it a valuable asset for the Marine Corps.

In addition to enhancing lethality and flexibility in munition development, the Marine Corps recognizes the cost-effective potential of 3D printing for manufacturing parts that are no longer in production. This capability becomes especially relevant as the Marine Corps faces the challenge of maintaining aging vehicle models that have reached the limits of their service life. Consequently, 3D printing stands out as a promising solution for producing critical components and munitions, offering the potential for improved performance, cost savings, and adaptability in addressing evolving mission requirements.

Expanding Functional Applications: Embedding Functionality into Structure

The Navy is exploring innovative applications of 3D printing, including the embedding of functionality into structures. This approach allows the addition of electronic circuitry, sensors, or antennas on non-traditional surfaces, providing flexibility in design. 3D printing enables the creation of flexible, low-cost electronic devices, allowing for adaptability to new surfaces or geometries.

US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) to install XSPEE3D

The US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) is set to integrate SPEE3D’s cutting-edge XSPEE3D printer into its academic programs. SPEE3D has partnered with CAMRE (Consortium for Additive Manufacturing Research and Education) to advance the use of metal-based additive manufacturing for the benefit of the US Tri-Service Maritime forces, encompassing the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The XSPEE3D printer will play a pivotal role at the US Naval Postgraduate School, where it will be utilized to empower military scholars and research professionals. CAMRE’s mission includes exploring the potential of the XSPEE3D printer and its proprietary Cold Spray Additive Manufacturing (CSAM) technology in the maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) of various assets, from surface and undersea vessels to aircraft and ground equipment. Rigorous trials and exercises will be conducted to evaluate the technology’s performance and reliability under challenging military conditions.

The XSPEE3D stands out for its expeditionary nature, enabling deployment in rugged and harsh field conditions without the need for inert gases or lasers, thus reducing operational risks. The printer is powered by heated compressed air and offers impressive build speeds, a substantial maximum part size, and a diverse array of current and prospective materials. Chris Curran, Program Manager for CAMRE, emphasized the printer’s versatility and suitability for on-demand manufacturing in austere environments, where speed and durability are of the essence. The partnership between SPEE3D and CAMRE represents a significant step forward in expanding the adoption of Cold Spray Additive Manufacturing (CSAM) technology within the defense sector, allowing the military to quickly produce crucial metal components, minimizing downtime and enhancing operational readiness.

The XSPEE3D, already deployed with organizations such as MTC and the British Army, represents an important addition to the arsenal of tools available to military units for rapid manufacturing. Furthermore, the technology’s versatility extends to extreme conditions, as it prepares to undergo testing to assess its capability for manufacturing metal parts under freezing conditions as part of the Office Of The Secretary Of Defense Manufacturing Technology’s ‘Point Of Need Challenge.’

SPEE3D’s advancement in the field of additive manufacturing is poised to make a significant impact on military preparedness, streamlining the supply chain and enabling military units to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and requirements. This technology heralds a new era for the US Navy and defense forces worldwide, offering an agile solution to support mission-critical operations.

Overcoming Challenges: The Path Forward for 3D Printing

The adoption of 3D printing in the military is not without its challenges. Standardized production processes, quality assurance methods, material variability, and performance must be addressed to maximize the benefits of this technology. Ensuring the safety and reliability of 3D-printed parts, particularly for critical systems, remains a priority.

Depending on the application, 3D-printed components may have inferior properties, which can be problematic for high-stress applications like jet engine parts that require exceptional temperature and physical resistance. The technology’s inability to provide a suitable surface finish for some components, such as complex threaded connections in critical equipment, necessitates additional processing with CNC machines. Integrating 3D printing seamlessly into an engineer’s toolbox is the long-term goal, allowing for the design and incorporation of unique components and functionalities into systems from the outset, promoting cohesiveness between structural and functional additive manufacturing.

Addressing these challenges will be crucial for making 3D printing more viable in military applications and ensuring that the technology can meet the high-performance demands of Air Force operations. Researchers are working on standardization, quality assurance, and enhancing material performance to make 3D printing a more integral part of the Air Force’s operations, from producing critical components to potentially revolutionizing systems-level design. These include ensuring the security of digital design files to prevent intellectual property theft and unauthorized production. Researchers are working to improve the understanding of materials compatibility and durability.

Safety First: Handling Hazardous Materials

The use of hazardous materials, such as argon gas and explosive metal powders, raises safety concerns that demand careful storage and handling.

Safety concerns related to 3D printing involve hazardous materials and potential risks. For instance, certain 3D printing processes, like those using argon gas, could lead to dangerous situations if there were leaks, as the gas is heavier than air and could accumulate in confined spaces. Moreover, the metal powders used in additive manufacturing can be explosive, necessitating meticulous storage and handling. Aluminum powder, in particular, is considered highly hazardous, requiring specific storage in secure areas to mitigate the risk of fire or intrusion. Understanding the safety, reliability, and durability of 3D-printed components remains a critical aspect, especially in aircraft and military applications, where these parameters have traditionally been well-established for parts produced using other manufacturing methods.

AI-Driven 3D Printing Robots: A Glimpse of the Future

The future of 3D printing in the U.S. Navy looks promising. Researchers are developing smart 3D printers that use artificial intelligence to optimize production and create complex, high-quality parts.

A groundbreaking project led by the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) in collaboration with Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Centre and other partners is set to revolutionize 3D printing. They aim to develop AI-driven 3D printing robots capable of making independent decisions to optimize the production of complex 3D printed parts. This ambitious two-year, $5.8 million contract addresses a common challenge in 3D printing across various industries, where constant supervision is required to ensure quality. By implementing artificial intelligence, these robots will not only reduce the need for human intervention but also continuously learn and adapt from one another, utilizing machine learning algorithms to enhance the 3D printing process. Lockheed Martin’s project manager, Brian Griffith, highlights the importance of creating consistent and high-quality 3D printed parts, reinforcing the significance of machines observing, learning, and autonomously adjusting during printing to achieve precise material properties.


The United States Navy’s journey into the world of 3D printing heralds a new era in naval warfare.  With the power to rapidly produce, customize, and maintain critical components across its entire fleet, the Navy is poised to maintain its competitive edge in an ever-evolving global landscape. This technology is changing the way the Navy designs, manufactures, and maintains its assets, offering cost-effective, efficient, and innovative solutions across a wide range of applications.  As this innovative technology continues to mature, it may serve as a blueprint for the future of naval warfare, setting the standard for maritime operations worldwide.











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