3D Printers may one day be used on board naval aircraft carriers, essentially making them floating one-stop print shops. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza (who has served on the staff of the Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and the Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs) believes that additive manufacturing will help the navy become more self-sufficient.
Currently, the Navy and NASA appear to have a similar need. With team members located halfway around the world (or in NASA'S case, completely off the earth), it's difficult to get supplies to them. NASA has been granting money left and right to explore new 3D printing technologies; printers that will let the astronauts build food, and zero-g printers that might let them create entire buildings in space.
The Navy would benefit from these same advances. Their supply chains can be interrupted because of enemy interference, weather, or any number of unforeseen problems. If they run out of something on a mission, they're just going to have to wait until help arrives. Llenza believes that 3D printing can change all this, allowing soldiers to print the food or parts they need immediately.
"Certainly, today's ships and subs are not going to make everything they need on board, although it is tempting to imagine better uses for freed-up storage spaces. Today's printers are generally limited to printing parts made of just one material and variance is a big issue." said Llenza
While Llenza acknowledges the current limitations of 3D printers, it doesn't stop him from dreaming about possible future applications. The ability to treat soldiers wounded on a mission without having to transport them long distances is one hope.
According to Llenza, the Walter Reed military center in Bethesda is already using 3D printing to treat wounded soldiers. "[Walter Reed is] already scanning soldiers' damaged limbs so that it can print custom prosthetics, and imaging skulls to print titanium plates that fit perfectly on the first try."
There are plenty of available warfare applications on the horizon too. 3D printed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) a.k.a. "drones" are already a reality. Remote control systems manufacturer Survey Copter used Stratasys printers (the Elite and a Fortus 400mc) to produce UAV prototype parts earlier this month. They plan to display the printed drones at the upcoming Paris Air Show in June.
Llenza cautions that it's going to take some time to get the technology sorted out, since much of the industry isn't standardized. "Right now, there's too much variance between parts in additive manufacturing. The quality of the printer and feedstock as well as the conditions they're created in influence that. Standards are needed, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology held its first conference on establishing standards in November."
This raises the question of how much we can expect our government and other oversight committees to get involved with the additive manufacturing industry. On the heels of the Liberator announcement, Sen. Leland Yee of California proposed a law aimed at tracking 3-D printers, along with the people that own them.
As for Lt. Cmdr. Llenza, he believes that the Navy will be able to overcome the obstacles to effectively utilizing 3D printers.