US Navy eyes 3D printing submarine parts to ease burden on strained industrial base

ARLINGTON, Va. — One of the primary risks to the critical Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program is fragility in key parts of the industrial base.

Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, could solve this problem.

The U.S. Navy plans to match suppliers that can’t meet demand with additive manufacturing companies that can print parts around the clock to increase supply, a service program manager said Jan. 31. This effort would target the most fragile parts of the submarine industrial base: companies that make castings, forges and fittings, in particular.

Matt Sermon, executive director of the Program Executive Office Strategic Submarines, said it would help those companies – some of which are the only sources of components for the Navy – by removing pressure to increase production rates as they struggle to follow the current workload. .

The industrial base now builds two Virginia-class attack submarines a year, works to build a single Columbia-class submarine, and helps keep the subs in service.

But manufacturing has already begun on the first Virginia Block V-class submarine with a mid-body Virginia payload module that increases the construction workload by about 25%. The Navy will purchase its second Columbia-class submarine in 2024 and begin production per year in 2026, which will mean increased work for major shipyards and their supply base. The Navy began to refer to this period of consistently purchasing one ballistic missile submarine and two general-purpose submarines each year as “1 plus 2” years.

If demand for parts can’t be reduced, then “let’s additively manufacture the components in this space, so by the time we get to 1 plus 2, we’ll have a reduced demand signal in castings, forgings and fittings,” Sermon said in his remarks at an American Society of Naval Engineers event.

Today, the Navy certifies individual parts for submarines. This part-by-part qualification won’t work going forward, Sermon said, arguing for the Navy to qualify the materials and processes used for additive manufacturing instead of the resulting parts.

But the Navy struggled to do so. For aerospace programs, additive manufacturing advocates have requested permission to print non-critical parts, but the Navy has not allowed it. The John C. Stennis aircraft carrier hosted the first-ever advanced manufacturing lab on board, but used laser scanning and additive manufacturing tools to print parts for the strike group ships, not the aircraft.

Putting printed parts on a submarine is as risky a proposition as putting them on an airplane, with both communities having strict standards to keep sailors safe in the air and under the ocean. But Sermon said the engineering community is now on board. Technical mandate holders are part of ongoing discussions, and Naval Sea Systems Command’s engineering and logistics directorate has accompanied the program office on site visits to companies that demonstrate additive manufacturing best practices. .

“Additive manufacturing gives you better material, better steel, than [working with raw materials],” he said. “It’s complicated, and the microstructures… are complicated and change some of our fundamental concerns. We’ll have to change the way we do nondestructive testing in many cases — not because it’s bad, but because it’s different, and we have to understand that.

The effort to put printed parts on submarines began in November, and Sermon said the Navy will install the first parts on an in-service submarine this calendar year.

He told Defense News after his remarks that the program office had a ranked list of six to 10 components he would like to print, based on a list of “problematic components” still unavailable in public shipyards when they are needed for a submarine. maintenance availability.

The suppliers who manufacture the parts will not be excluded from the process. Instead, they’ll help with engineering and have the ability to do printing if they have the ability – although Sermon said most of the companies involved don’t. If the original manufacturer cannot do additive manufacturing themselves, the Navy will partner them with a small company that can.

Sermon noted during the panel the multiple benefits of adopting additive manufacturing. First, it addresses capacity issues during Years 1 and 2, when a lack of parts could jeopardize build and repair times.

Longer term, however, he said working through the processes and certification of printed parts will enable the Navy and industry to design the next-generation submarine, dubbed SSN(X), with manufacturing additive in mind – potentially reducing the program. cost or generate a better or more durable part.

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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