Industry and military await the day that 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing can repair and replace parts in the farthest reaches of the world
If you’ve invested millions in advanced technology, you expect it to be available all the time. Any downtime is costly for a wide variety of reasons. That’s why companies that produce complex systems (automotive, aerospace and heavy industry) have huge investments in parts inventory so that they can provide their customers with replacements to get systems back up and running in the shortest time possible. But there is an emerging scenario that will allow manufacturers to better manage their inventory process and leverage Additive Manufacturing (AM) capabilities to reduce expense and improve flexibility. In this scenario, needed parts would be be produced via Additive Manufacturing techniques on an as-needed basis, in facilities a few hours travel away from the piece of equipment in need of repair. The oil industry is researching this “just-in-time” AM opportunity, as is the military, which covets the ability to fix machinery in the field. NASA has also successfully tested AM on the International Space Station.
Where additive manufacturing could save money and reduce risk
Drilling for oil above the Arctic Circle, maintaining heavy-use airplanes on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean, or replacing a defective part while circling the earth in the International Space Station are all examples of remote workplaces that stretch the common understanding of a supply chain.
That’s why the people in charge of supply chains and the associated economics are among the most fanatical proponents of additive manufacturing/3D printing.
The oil and gas industry, which is working in increasingly remote and hostile environments, views additive manufacturing as a proven technology — based on work being done in the aerospace and biomedical fields.
Components of a typical oil rig part include the mud pump, which has pistons and valves that need to be replaced every eight to 24 days. These commodity items are shipped from China. In a scenario envisioned in an article in “Today’s Energy Solutions” magazine, a small additive manufacturing operation could be set up in a shipping container to repair worn-out parts with materials that would last longer. Such a practice would reduce inventory and increase service life of the repaired parts.
A 3D printer has been tested on the International Space Station to show that it can work in micro gravity. The test machine used plastic, not metal, but is considered the first step toward realizing a machine shop in space, which would be critical for any Deep Space mission. The European Space Agency is also working on plans to build a lunar base using 3D printing.
On the seas
The U.S. Navy, which must contend with repair and replacement issues that constrict the ability to store large numbers of parts or to access new ones quickly from off-ship locations, views additive manufacturing as having the potential to transform Navy logistics and maintenance capabilities.
Here are some examples:
- Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s Rapid Prototype Lab is saving the Navy thousands of dollars on the Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers. Instead of traditional wood or metal mockups of ship alterations, which help to prevent expensive rework, the lab prints much cheaper plastic polymer models – in hours, rather than days or weeks. Now all four Navy shipyards have 3D printers working on similar, and other, ways to benefit the Navy.
- The Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast took advantage of the ability to work with more complicated designs and unique material properties to develop an enhanced hydraulic intake manifold for the V-22 Osprey. This manifold is 70 percent lighter, improves fluid flow, and has fewer leak points than its traditionally manufactured counterpart.
- The circuit card clip for J-6000 Tactical Support System Servers, installed onboard Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines and Ohio-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines is no longer produced by its original manufacturer. Naval Undersea Warfare Center-Keyport uses additive manufacturing to create a supply of replacement parts to keep the fleet ready.
Challenges to reaching the next level
The technology is not yet advanced enough to accomplish some of the most imaginative and coveted tasks – providing quick repairs to allow marooned military fighters to fix a plane, helicopter or similar machine and get out of harm’s way or improve combat readiness.
But with military aircraft now operating for more years than originally designed, parts that were not expected to be replaced are failing. For the military, shipping electrons rather than raw materials is very appealing. Even in normal, non-combat circumstances, the future of AM offers the military ways to save money and time.
The challenges to achieving everything that can be imagined by engineers and scientists who want to build nearly anything they need through AM techniques are still basic. Dr. Ranier Hebert is director of the The Pratt & Whitney Additive Manufacturing Innovation Center at the University of Connecticut. He is investigating the physics of additive manufacturing. AM is still a relatively young process compared to traditional manufacturing, and there are questions about whether results can be duplicated from machine to machine or how different materials react under similar circumstances and at different temperatures. Those are the answers Hebert and his lab are seeking.
“It’s the type of data you can’t look up in the literature,” Hebert said. “But the advanced measurement modeling and simulation we are doing will speed up development.”
Developing ways to gain this information is critical for the day to arrive when parts can be repaired anywhere from the tundra, to the deck of a ship or even in outer space. “If we have a part spinning at 70,000 rpm and the tolerance is off,” Hebert said, “the engine will blow up. The tolerances are not yet what we need them to be.”