The Navy recently installed a 3D printer aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex, stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to help test new printing technology at sea.
The Naval Postgraduate School, which led the technology research effort, helped install the printer on Essex and conduct diagnostic tests July 8-9 amid the Rim of the Pacific exercise of the Navy, according to a Navy press release. .
The installation of the 3D printer on Essex provides a new approach for the department to meet its demand for needed supplies, as other departments stay on their own path to take full advantage of 3D printing technology.
During its trials and evaluation at sea, the new printer, capable of fabricating and printing aluminum, will produce various items on board.
“Having this printer on board will essentially speed up, improve and increase our combat readiness,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nicolas Batista, Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department officer aboard the Essex, said in a statement.
“The capabilities of the 3D printer will allow the Essex to become more self-sufficient,” Batista said, adding that commonly needed components such as fuel adapters, bleed air valves, valve covers and more others can now be created on the ship.
The Naval Postgraduate School worked with Xerox Printing to receive its own 3D printer around the same time the Department of Defense released its first additive manufacturing strategy, better known as 3D printing, in January. 2021.
Naval Postgraduate School professors Garth Hobson and Emre Gunduz help lead the school’s work on additive manufacturing, including through a consortium for research and education.
They shared in an interview with Military Times that while the machines currently only produce a specific aluminum alloy, they are working to expand it. Over the next year, they are also looking to establish an additive manufacturing certificate program for DoD military and civilians to learn more about the increasingly important technology.
The Navy also previously worked with a 3D printer on Essex in 2014, according to Breaking Defense.
3D printing, however, is not new to the Navy or other services.
Earlier in 2022, the Navy discussed pairing suppliers with additive manufacturing companies to increase available parts.
In May, the Air Force invested in its own 3D printer to produce spare parts for its Strategic Automated Command Control System and the Army’s Combat Capability Development Command launched a project to 3D print everything “from food to shelter to weapons”. Even the White House discussed the importance of additive manufacturing last May to ameliorate supply chain issues in the military and beyond.
With the printer now installed on Essex, sailors on board must be trained in the correct use of the equipment.
Roxanne Barrera, Aircraft Structures Mechanic 3rd Class, said, “I was honored when my chain of command asked me to be the first sailor aboard USS Essex to undergo training for this 3D printer. . I just want to learn how to make it work and share [the knowledge] with other people.”
Batista said the Commander of the Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Commander of Naval Air Systems Command have also begun efforts to establish a work center solely designed for the 3D printing concept.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that Essex had a 3D printer in 2014.