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US To Source 3D-Printed Parts To End Spares Shortage For Submarine Fleet

The development is a huge milestone for additive manufacturing

Photo Credit : US Navy


Attack submarine USS Chicago under repairs at the Pearl Harbour Naval Shipyard

The US Navy is opening up to 3D-printing in a bid to end the shortage of critical spares for its nuclear-powered submarine fleet. It will begin installing printed parts on in-service submarines this year. 

This development is being seen as a huge milestone for printing technology. The US lead is set to open doors for replication among submarine operators across the world. Along with military aviation, submarine construction and maintenance requires the most stringent quality standards for materials used on account of high risk sensitivity. 

The US has an industrial base which supports construction of two Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) annually besides maintenance of its in-service fleet. Shortage of several components has affected availability of the fleet for operations. The ongoing construction of a Columbia class submarine - the next generation ballistic missile-firing nuclear deterrence boat (SSBN) - has created further pressure on Industrial capacity. 

The US Navy will begin one-per-year production of the Columbia class submarine from 2026, besides two attack, general purpose SSNs. This time frame is being referred to as the ‘1-plus-2 years’ for its submarine building programme, which will put higher stress on existing capacities. 

The resort to additive manufacturing is meant to ease this pressure and ensure a steady supply of spares by reducing dependence on castings, forgings and fittings which are in short supply. The US Navy program office is reported to have put out a list of 10 components it would like printed, based on a list of “trouble components” which are consistently in short supply at the submarine shipyards. 

GlobalData Aerospace, Defence and Security, a leading data and analytics company, reckons that the US is in a strong position domestically to deliver on the new mandate of the US Navy, with General Electric, Boeing and Raytheon collectively owning over 1,500 patents in 3D printing.

“Expanding the use of 3D printing in naval shipbuilding will require some changes in the way navies approve material use and standards for their platforms, but the potential payoffs are increased availability for vessels in the fleet and a long-term reduction in operations and maintenance costs,” says GlobalData Associate analyst James Marques. 

3D acceptance by the military has taken some effort. It has also challenged the certification process for components. The US Navy so far certifies parts which go on the submarine. It is now being encouraged to certify materials and processes used in additive manufacturing rather than the parts which are produced from it. 

There’s still hesitation over the embrace of 3D. US Navy has so far not allowed 3D parts - even non-critical components - for its aircraft. The first-ever onboard manufacturing lab on the aircraft carrier John C Stennis used additive manufacturing to print parts only for ships in the carrier strike group, not aircraft. 

3D advocates say the benefits go beyond ensuring timely supply of parts to protect construction and repair timelines and optimum fleet availability. Experience of 3D printing processes and certification will help in the design and manufacture of the next generation of submarines, tentatively dubbed the SSN(X), with additive manufacturing in the picture. This will potentially reduce costs and provide more survivable parts. 

The US has sought to assure its traditional supply chain that it won’t be cut out of the process. Those suppliers who don’t have 3D capability will be paired up with those who do and will continue to be involved in the engineering and design aspect. 

The 3D trend is spreading. The Royal Australian Navy is reportedly one of the many exploring printing for ship components.