Militaries around the world have eyed 3D printing as a cost and time-effective resource for future missions, whether it’s printing up replacement parts for warplanes, grenade launchers, or meals for soldiers. Recently, the US Navy has partnered with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a proof-of-concept submersible that was printed in under four weeks.
The idea of printing up weapons or vehicles is something out of science fiction, but this is something that the military could begin using in the next couple of years, if everything goes well. The 3D printed submersible was developed by a team from the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) and Carderock Division's Disruptive Technology Laboratory (DTL), and comes with the cumbersome name Optionally Manned Technology Demonstrator, which is based on a submersible currently used by Navy SEALs.
The team began work in August 2016, and used a massive industrial 3D Pinter called Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) to manufacture six carbon fiber sections, which were then assembled into the 30 foot long vehicle. The team was given four weeks to develop the hull, spending the first week designing it, and began printing the components a week later. It’s now the Navy’s largest 3D printed asset.
According to the Department of Energy, a traditional hull “ranges from $600,000 to $800,000 and typically takes 3-5 months to manufacture,” while this version was 90 percent cheaper and produced within “a matter of days.” This is a big deal for the military, because this quick turnaround time means that replacement parts or specially-designed equipment can be manufactured and deployed rapidly.
This isn’t a working machine, however: the hull is a proof of concept intended to determine if it’s possible to print up something that might be useful, and the goal of the entire exercise was to figure out a quicker and cheaper way to work out the manufacturing process using different methods.
The team earned the NAVSEA Commanders Award for Innovation for their work, and are now planning on printing up a second, watertight version of the sub that will undergo practical water testing, with “fleet-capable prototypes” that could potentially be introduced for use as early as 2019.