As part of the Logistics and Lifecycle Engineering Competency, the ODM lab offers manufacturing agility through low-volume production in maintenance and operational Navy environments. The lab currently has 12 3D printers specializing in different applications, nine that can print in plastic and polymer and three printing in metal.
Each printer can create small to large scale polymer parts, some as large as a submarine hatch or a compact freezer, with intricate details. Examples include miniature scale models of the inside of a Stuttgart communications center, and an air traffic control center building.
The devices can print lightweight, flexible parts and load-bearing components, using low-cost, durable plastics, polymers, composites, steel, titanium, wax, metal-infused plastic, rubberized plastic and alkaline-soluble support material. They can also print with metal powder in the filament, then cook and shrink the piece in a high temperature furnace, and can make moving parts by building them in one piece then dropping them in an alkaline bath to “erase” the connecting parts.
The lab recently added metal capability that supports tool steel, stainless steel and Inconel. In this new application of an old technology, the metal powder is combined with plastic and wax in a filament. The part is printed then washed in an alkaline solution to dissolve the wax, leaving behind the plastic. It is then sintered in a furnace to remove the plastic and recrystallize the metal grain structure.
According to the lab manager, they are just scratching the surface of using and exporting the capabilities of AM.
“We want this lab to become a ‘makerspace’ where people can come and learn about AM and make solutions for unique military needs,” said ODM Lab Manager Josh Heller. “We can certify the user on the equipment and teach them how to validate and verify their AM component to meet project or product requirements. The applications of this technology are unlimited,” he said. “It’s really up to the imagination of the engineer.”
Heller was assigned to the Digital Integration Facility when NIWC Atlantic purchased its first multi-jet printer. Since then the AM team has come a long way to develop, integrate and operationalize ODM across NIWC Atlantic. They recently sent new 3D printers to fleet concentration areas in Virginia, Italy and Germany, so they can make parts locally to enable maintenance and sustainment.
AM builds a product in layers based on CAD drawing specifications. Depending on the complexity of the finished product, AM can take hours, a day or a week, but is still faster — and cheaper — than finding a commercial product, creating and submitting contracting documents, soliciting bids, selecting a vendor, sending specs to a manufacturer and waiting for the product to arrive.
“We want to push the envelope on the use of additive manufacturing to increase readiness and sustainment for warfighters,” said Logistics and Lifecycle Engineering Competency Lead Brad Hoisington. “The capability to produce components on demand, close to the point of need is truly a game changer for us.”
From the start the lab has worked closely with NIWC Atlantic depots performing ship maintenance and sustainment. They also actively support NIWC Atlantic science and technology teams to use AM technology to build prototypes and innovative products. Showing military sponsors a prototype has proven to be more effective than presenting a white paper, Heller said. The ODM labs’ AM subject matter expert Hunter Smith has two patents for his AM-created innovations.
“We are getting plenty of business from [the Science & Technology competency] and the depots, but we really want to push AM capabilities to our integrated product teams (IPTs),” Heller said. He and Smith have been reaching out to NIWC Atlantic IPTs to identify their needs and provide 3D-printed solutions. “We are actively pursuing buy-in from the IPTs on using AM to save time and money,” Heller said. “This represents a change in their process, so we have to demonstrate to them that it’s in their best interest.”
AM, Heller added, also represents a change in how to think about design.
“For example, you can design an MRAP bracket made from steel, or you can design it made from aluminum — it makes a huge difference in weight, space, cost and time to use a different material,” he said. “AM creates a new design space that allows for previously unobtainable designs. It allows for widespread customization and solutions tailored to specific missions.”
One way the team is spreading the word about their capabilities is with employee rotations in the lab.
“Our goal is to become a first stop for all intern and new professional rotations, so we can teach and certify them in AM. Then they can go to their permanent assignments with that knowledge and make contributions right away with innovated AM solutions to challenges,” Heller said.
Once they are taught and certified, they will have access to the equipment and can take advantage of the command’s investment in tools to help them support the warfighter in their permanent assignment.
Manufacturing close to the point of need is the ultimate goal of ODM. Under the ODM umbrella are capabilities such as hybrid production with AM and traditional subtractive manufacturing (SM), and reverse engineering of replacement parts to repair systems with end-of-life parts no longer available. When designing with AM, multi-piece parts can be simplified into fewer parts, making maintenance and support easier and cheaper. The NIWC Atlantic lab also has a 3D scanner with 3D modeling software capabilities and high computing workstations.
Digital manufacturing requires managing vast quantities of data, and the NIWC Atlantic team in Charleston is working with NIWC Pacific to collect metrics from different warfare centers and developing a network to answer the challenges of this technology. They are developing Digital Thread AM to share cyber secure data between sites on an enterprise-wide cloud network. This would allow point-to-point 3D printing from Charleston, enabling operators to push print on files in Virginia, Naples, Stuttgart and beyond, to eventually include shipboard and subsurface implementations.
“Digital Thread AM addresses all the issues with data sharing that would enable end-to-end product lifecycle management,” said Heller.
As the team uses the equipment more and AM technology matures, they are growing their menu of products and capabilities. “We are getting more experience making different products with a variety of materials. We’re using different files and software, and collecting and sharing lessons learned,” Heller said. They are also working with a group installing Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services across the fleet, with industry partners and with tenant commands on Joint Base Charleston – Naval Weapons Station.
Given the relatively low cost of AM equipment and the money and time saved using 3D-printed components, the ODM team is poised to move to the next level of repair and redesign of Navy components.
For Heller and the AM team, the rewards come from approaching a problem in a unique way.
“We are not limited to traditional methods for making things. We can use this technology to come up with ingenious solutions that save space, weight, cost and time. These are the solutions we want to share with warfighters.”