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Keyport, WA
​U.S. Navy 3D Prints Its Way Into Future

By TJ McCueSunday, July 13, 2014

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Maintaining ships and submarines is no easy task given the harsh ocean environment that our U.S. Navy operates in and under. In the tiny town of Keyport roughly 90 minutes from Seattle, and just north of the larger Bremerton Naval Station, is the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division. This base has been utilizing 3D printing and rapid prototyping processes since 2002.

The first equipment used, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), was initially intended to create prototype parts and models, however, the use of this equipment immediately expanded into direct manufacture of custom design and production projects. With more than 12 years under their belt, more than 25,000 components have been produced. The division does 3D design and printing work across many commands and departments, all over the USA, as well as for over 20 foreign allies.

We were hosted by Public Affairs Officer Silvia Klatman who took us around the base to show us some of the historic buildings and military housing, and then to the very cool 3D printing facility. Engineer Kyle Morris took us on the facility tour itself as he works with all the different machines and processes and answered our many questions.

In 2006, NUWC Keyport implemented an AMCAST rapid prototyping system which is capable of printing sand molds and cores to produce metal castings. The system at NUWC Keyport is the only unit in the entire Department of Defense that can produce sophisticated sand molds directly from three-dimensional computer part models. Kyle explained that this machine can print a sand mold nearly five feet long. It full print capacity, in inches, is 59x29x27 and he said it would take two full days, printing nonstop, to produce sand mold that size.

NUWC Keyport’s most recent 3D printer addition is a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) system, the Stratasys Fortus 900mc, acquired in 2012, which is capable of producing parts up to 3’ x 3’ x 2’. We saw dozens of the Fortus 900mc in action during our RedEye on Demand tour a few weeks ago in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

The FDM system can produce high-performance polymers such as high-strength polycarbonates and high-temperature plastics for ship and submarine applications. Additionally, it can produce large structural components for unguided vehicles, large fixtures for manufacturing tooling, forming dies for aircraft components and a wide range of other applications requiring larger and stronger materials.

Like many other companies we visit, the people and teams using 3D methods tell how these technologies significantly reduce costs and delivery times for many products. Silvia tells us of just one more example where a mold that normally took nine months to create, NUWC Keyport was able to reduce the production time to just three days with a 3D printer.

Keyport is not the only base in the U.S. Navy system to use 3D printing and the various aspects of getting a file to the printer via laser scanning and 3D modeling are common in quite a few locations. But what I found compelling were the stories where people are starting to think in 3D, so to speak, asking what else a 3D process could solve. Silvia shared this one:

Recently a test was performed where a large caliber round was detonated next to a representative missile housing in order to see the overall effects on the missile. Following the test the missile was laser scanned and reverse engineered into a computer model. This computer model contained all deformations and perforations to a high level of accuracy. The deformed missile was then scaled down to one tenth of its original size and printed using a 3D printer.

This deformed missile model provided physical evidence and insight into the damage inflicted that two dimensional pictures could not capture. This approach has been used for various projects where understanding wear or deformation damage to test hardware is the number one priority. This also allows customers the ability keep physical representations of test hardware that would generally have to be disposed of due to explosive residue.

We weren’t surprised to learn about the innovation happening in the Keyport 3D printing facility or the Navy’s creative use of 3D technology overall – these are the same folks we consider neighbors and friends. We are, after all, residents of Washington State and we were involved in planning a mini Maker Faire here. Keyport and Bremerton Navy personnel gladly volunteered to bring their underwater remote operated vehicles (ROV) to that event – because they love helping kids (and adults) wrap their hands and hearts around STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s how a passion for solving problems in 3D begins. 

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