The Maryland-based Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) recognizes the many benefits that 3D printing can offer our nation’s fighting forces, and has been working to educate its workforce on the technology, most recently with 3D printing courses by the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD). Three years ago, the organization, which provides the US Navy with life-cycle support for the naval aviation aircraft, systems, and weapons operated by the country’s Marines and Sailors, made its intentions for additive manufacturing clear.
In 2015, NAVAIR announced at the Sea-Air-Space exposition that it planned to introduce a 3D printed flight-critical metal component in a flight-ready aircraft within three years. A little over a year later, that component – a 3D printed titanium link and fitting assembly – was successfully tested for the first time on an MV-22B Osprey military aircraft at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River. According to Inside Defense, after that successful test flight, the implementation plan called for the part to be certified to the full performance life of the original.
Now, NAVAIR is estimating that by the end of this year, it will have approved almost 1,000 3D printed parts for use across the fleet. According to a NAVAIR logistics officer, that number is nearly a tenfold increase from what’s currently available.
NAVAIR’s assistant commander for logistics and industrial operations, Brig. Gen. Greg Masiello, said at this year’s Sea-Air-Space conference, which ended yesterday, that the command has 135 parts right now that the fleet is authorized to 3D print and put into use.
Masiello explained that by the end of “2018, we’ll probably be in the neighborhood of a thousand parts . . . some of those will be metal.”
According to Masiello, those 1,000 parts will vary from small helmet modifications to major flight-critical aircraft parts. He also explained that NAVAIR has set up a sort of triage system, which uses color categories to classify different parts depending on their airworthiness. For example, parts which don’t need airworthiness are classified in such a way that a request to 3D print them is able to be processed much more quickly.
3D printed parts on full display at the US Navy’s Additive Manufacturing booth at Sea-Air-Space. [Image: NAVAIR via Twitter]
“All that aside, there’s preconditions: you have to have the right material to go in [the printer], you have to have the right process, and then you have to have the right printer. And for some of those complex metal parts or even the cast parts, that’s not a standard printer,” said Masiello.
Aviation Mechanic Cody Schwarz installs a 3D printed titanium link and fitting in 2016. [Image: US Navy]
However, when asked how NAVAIR will manage to process and authorize flight critical parts at a faster rate of speed, Masiello said that it’s easier to print some parts than others, and that it’s not the mission of the Navy to get every flight-critical part operational. He explained that the parts aren’t “necessarily, economically or even technically optimized for that.”
Over the last few years, 3D printing has continued to be integrated into the Navy’s supply strategy. Two years ago, it was predicted that Navy fleets would soon be impacted by on-demand 3D printing, and it’s clear that they’re still working toward that goal.
More and more now, we’re seeing the Navy and Marine Corps work to increase the adoption of additive manufacturing, whether it’s by 3D printing munitions, drones, barracks, and other components or working to decrease the logistical footprint and increase sustainability.
But, according to NAVAIR’s additive manufacturing team lead Elizabeth McMichael, who also spoke at the Sea-Air-Space conference this week, there’s still a long way to go in terms of 3D printing flight-critical parts.
“I think what’s standing in our way is standards,” McMichael explained. “It’s having enough data and understanding on our side to be able to put a standard in place to say . . . here [are] the elements you have to consider.”
McMichael stated that those standards are currently being created. But, an additional challenge comes in having the data that’s associated with the standards.
McMichael said, “If an industry partner makes a part, we need to be able to tell them what data we need to see.”
USS Essex, home to the very first 3D printer on a naval ship
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[Source: Inside Defense]