3D printing aboard an attack submarine

080621-N-8467N-001 GROTON, Conn. (June 21, 2008) Pre-commissioning Unit New Hampshire (SSN 778) sits moored to the pier at General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard moments before her christening ceremony commenced. New Hampshire, the fifth Virginia class submarine built, was officially christened by sponsor Cheryl McGuinness. U.S. Navy photo by John Narewski (Released)

For several years, we have been describing new installations of industrial-grade 3D printers on military or transport ships, however, this case is one of the first when it happened on board … a submarine! The US Navy – Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has installed a Markforged 3D printer on the Virginia-class attack submarine – USS New Hampshire (SSN 778).

Markforged X7 is a 3D printer that uses the process of combining high-performance polyamide with homogeneous (not powdered) carbon fiber, which enables the creation of parts with exceptional stiffness and resistance to mechanical damage. The machine was installed on the USS New Hampshire in July 2022, helping seamen stationed there repair a number of components and subassemblies in an unconventional way and remove defects such as leaking pipes or damaged electrical housings. All this significantly increases the independence of the unit, which can stay on a mission for several months.

The Markforged X7 3D printer was selected for its ability to remain reliable in a simulated shipboard environment. This is the result of the additive manufacturing research and development program led by NAVSEA (NAVSEA 05T) with support from Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Philadelphia, NSWC Carderock and Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Newport.

“The 3D printer can be used to create most of the currently approved technical data packages that are available to seafarers on the Joint Technical Data Integration platform,” said Lewis Shattuck, NAVSEA’s additive manufacturing assistant program manager. “These parts have been identified by NAVSEA engineers and the fleet to meet a variety of needs, including routine or preventive maintenance, temporary replacements, creating life-enhancing products, drill supports, tools and fixtures.”

The USS New Hampshire reported that while the crew did not receive personal training on the Markforged X7 3D printer, the documentation was excellent and crew members experienced in 3D printing were able to learn and train other crew members. Engineers at NUWC Newport, NSWC Philadelphia and NSWC Carderock combined lessons learned from previous Markforged X7 3D printer installations to develop detailed instructions. The manuals allow seafarers to set up the printer, print parts, general maintenance and calibration, and troubleshoot problems themselves.

The Afloat Additive Manufacturing Program, which falls under NAVSEA and oversees activities such as the underwater 3D printer project, is set to become a record-breaking acquisitions program in fiscal year 2024 that will see the latest additive manufacturing equipment deployed more widely in the Navy.


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