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NPS President Explores Links Between Additive Manufacturing, Warfighting Readiness With Panelists at Sea-Air-Space

In recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) has embraced the promise of additive manufacturing (AM) to help address materiel readiness and resiliency, especially for deployed forces. This potential – for AM to serve as a logistics and readiness multiplier – was discussed by an expert panel of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and industry representatives on April 10 during the final day of the Sea-Air-Space Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), served as moderator for the panel, titled “Additive Manufacturing: Creating a Warfighting Advantage through Materiel Readiness.” 

As Rondeau pointed out, while AM is a relatively new technology, the underlying concept – creating or modifying parts at the point of need to remain mission ready – is a familiar one for Sailors and Marines.

“This is not a culture that we do not understand,” Rondeau said. “This is not a topic new to the United States Navy or the Marine Corps. Manufacturing while you're on the go is what we do.”

She also noted that the thought of using AM in an operational or contested logistics environment isn’t new to NPS students or faculty. In 2019, the NPS Warfare Innovation Continuum did an entire year of study on logistics in contested environments, called “Resurrecting War Plan Blue,” and the idea of innovating and manufacturing at sea and AM came up frequently.

“We look at these things for a number of reasons,” said Rondeau. “Concepts lead to capabilities, which lead to adoption. And it all does lead to developing leaders who are educated to employ them, in this case, additive manufacturing efficiently and effectively.”

Rondeau was joined by U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Forrest Poole, Assistant Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics (Logistics Division), and Matthew Sermon, executive director of Program Executive Office (PEO) Strategic Submarines for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).

Also participating in the panel were Jesse Boyer, an Additive Manufacturing Fellow at Pratt & Whitney who shared his perspective about the defense industry, and U.S. Navy Lt. Zachary Vrtis, an NPS Ph.D. student and member of the school’s Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education (CAMRE).

The DOD Additive Manufacturing Strategy aims to modernize national defense systems to improve performance using AM-designed equipment; increase materiel readiness to rapidly prototype and produce direct parts, reducing the risk of obsolete hardware; and enabling warfighters to employ innovative solutions on the battlefield through AM capabilities. 

While the hour-long conversation did touch upon the DOD’s efforts, panelists also addressed how their specific organizations are employing AM for naval forces. 

Poole first talked about how the Marines are constantly exploring how to improve operational logistics.

“The Marine Corps is laser-focused on getting after that expeditionary aspect of how we sustain forces forward,” said Poole. “We think of Okinawa, we think of what we refer to now as the Stand-In Force, the SIF, and how we're able to not only project, but sustain those forces. AM happens to be one way that we do that.”

As examples, Poole cited two deployable AM systems – the XFAB (Expeditionary Fabrication) system and the Tactical Fabrication (TACFAB) kit, both developed in coordination with the Navy – that Marines can use to carry out needed maintenance in a forward environment.

While Poole expressed his eagerness to see how AM best supports the Corps, he also added that his most important expeditionary logistics resources are his Marines – and empowering them to pursue innovative solutions to any problem that may arise in the field.

“I don't necessarily need a lot of Marines, or Sailors serving with Marines, who have the same capabilities as these gentlemen up here,” said Poole, referring to his fellow panelists. “I just want them to think about different problems. And if we can do that – and we are, I think we've been very successful with that – if we can do that, then the sky's the limit.

“If the Marines are empowered and enabled to be able to do those things downrange, then there's nothing we can't do.”

Like the Marine Corps, the Navy’s submarine community deals with its own unique deployed logistics requirements. Submarines are underway for extended periods, with few or no port calls and limited replenishment opportunities. Additionally, most critical parts required by submarines must meet stringent manufacturing requirements and safety regulations.

Sermon, who is responsible for revitalizing the Submarine Industrial Base, has identified areas where AM can help support submarine construction, shorten the logistics chain and reduce wait times for parts – all while preserving the submarine community’s high safety standards.

“We are not the manufacturing nation that we were 40 years ago,” said Sermon. “We must have advanced manufacturing of all types, and additive is at the fore of that for us.”

Specifically, Sermon cited the need to 3D print a large number of submarine parts made from six different metals, with the goal of expediting delivery of critically needed components.

“We're focused on these six materials that cover almost 30,000 parts on submarines. They cover parts where we have significant late issues. They cover parts of our industrial base – how we make parts today where we have significantly less capacity than we did when we built Ohios from 1979 to 1997,” he added, referring to the Ohio-class SSBN.

Sermon did offer the caveat that parts required under the Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) are not yet ready to be 3D printed at scale. However, for certain submarine components – those not exposed to sea pressure or reactor temperatures – Sermon said that AM could be used to produce parts faster and with a greater capacity. And he added that testing is ongoing for materials which will allow for printing of parts which meet SUBSAFE standards.

“We’ve had incredible work with the technical community, SEA-05, Naval Reactors, working together,” Sermon said. “I'm not worried about us getting there from a manufacturing readiness and a technology readiness perspective. We will get there. We have the right team, we have the right partnerships, we're going to drive to material maturity.”

The defense industry is responding and working with the Navy, Marine Corps and other services to evaluate specific AM needs and requirements, and how they can be met with existing AM technology. Given the wide range of AM methods and materials, Boyer emphasized the need for providers to meet with customers and the end user to determine which AM modality works best.

“We do need to review those applications, be able to review them with that customer, and provide the right solution for you,” said Boyer, who has worked in the AM field for more than a decade. “AM is not a one-size-fits-all in many aspects.”

Boyer recommended that the AM process should be “de-convoluted” to allow providers and customers with the best overall picture of how AM methods and requirements can mesh. He also urged AM consumers to become better educated on how AM processes can work.

“I would encourage everyone to get involved in, you know, standards committees, such as ASTM, ASME, ISO, initiatives like AM Forward, America Makes,” Boyer said. “I'm not expecting anyone to be an AM expert at the end of the panel, but really just informed AM users.”

Vrtis spoke about his work with CAMRE, which recently opened a new Advanced Manufacturing Center at NPS to explore and expand AM education and research in support of the Navy and DOD. A doctoral student whose research focuses on applications of AM technology, Vrtis also cited the value of education at NPS, and encouraged expanding student participation and learning on AM technologies and applications and their potential throughout the logistics chain.

“Students like myself, when they come to NPS, they can learn the processes, the types of techniques that Mr. Boyer and Mr. Sermon touched on – where AM is appropriate and where it's not,” said Vrtis. “And that's a lot of what we talked about at the AM Summit that followed the ribbon-cutting, with our partners from NAVAIR, NAVSEA, and the other TYCOMs there as well.

“With that education piece, it's crucial that students that go to NPS learn as much as they can about AM, to be proponents for it when they go back out to the fleet, and to the rest of the Department of the of the Navy, and where else they may go, and to be the champions for it, but to understand where it can be used and where it cannot be used.”

In addition to his research, Vrtis is involved with CAMRE’s efforts to test AM technology in the operating environment, at sea and ashore, including the upcoming SALVEX, Trident Warrior and RIMPAC exercises, as well as concurrent training of Sailors and Marines in the operation of AM hardware.

“We're going to be training Marines, we're going to be training Sailors, we're going to be training Naval Reservists. They're going to be operating them under our expertise, making sure that we print parts that are applicable and creating some great new success stories,” Vrtis said.

Poole expressed his appreciation to Vrtis, CAMRE and NPS for helping to facilitate opportunities for Marines to learn more about AM technology – and to all his fellow panelists for how it can benefit the Corps as a whole.

“I think what you'll see is the Marines come up with ideas, just all kinds of ideas of how we could implement something like this,” said Poole. “And some of it might work, and some of it might not work. But, you know, as long as we can fail fast and fail often and fail now so we can get better later on, I think it's just tremendous.”

The Naval Postgraduate School provides defense-focused graduate education, including classified studies and interdisciplinary research, to advance the operational effectiveness, technological leadership and warfighting advantage of the Naval service. For additional information, visit NPS online at https://nps.edu.