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NEWS | April 10, 2024

Innovating Under the Sea: Additive Manufacturing Boosts Submarine Construction, Sustainment

By Team Submarine Public Affairs

Technology plays an increasingly critical role in military operations. Nowhere is this more apparent than beneath the waves, Mr. Matthew Sermon, executive director, Program Executive Office (PEO) Strategic Submarines, explained at the Sea, Air, and Space Exposition. Speaking at the "Additive Manufacturing: Creating a Warfighting Advantage through Materiel Readiness" panel, he showcased the critical contributions Additive Manufacturing (AM) can contribute to national defense.

Sermon explained the urgent necessity of AM to the Nation’s immediate security priorities. The panel, moderated by Vice Adm. (Ret.) Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School; included Brig. Gen. Forrest Poole, assistant deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics (Logistics Division), United States Marine Corps; Jesse Boyer, Additive Manufacturing fellow at Pratt & Whitney; and Lt. Zack Vrtis, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at the Naval Postgraduate School. 

Sermon began by noting the significance of April 10 as the 60th anniversary of the loss of USS Thresher (SSN 593) during deep-diving tests in 1963.  “For those of you who have been through a submarine certification,” Sermon explained, “to make sure we’ve got it right, and have maximum reasonable assurance that when we’re sending a submarine out from a major availability that she’s ready, that we’ve done everything we possibly can to ensure quality.”

While this tragic lesson will forever dominate any and all approaches to subsequent innovation, quality assurance need not be achieved at the cost of speed. As Sermon noted. “We will not sacrifice technical rigor. What we are demanding is technical agility.”

Sermon emphasized the strategic significance of AM in the context of national security and defense manufacturing.

“As I reflect on the journey we’re having in the submarine community, which is required— it is an imperative," said Sermon. “We are not the manufacturing nation that we were 40 years ago… we must have advanced manufacturing of all types.”

Sermon noted that AM efforts also support submarine sustainment and AUKUS growth, with a keen emphasis on the maturity of six alloys critical to submarine construction, stressing the urgency and ambition fueling the Navy's AM initiatives.

“We’re focused on these six materials that cover almost 30,000 parts. We are progressing— we have permanently installed parts on submarines now. We’d like to have hundreds.” He stressed AM efforts will uplift the entire maritime industrial base.

Sermon shared one of his favorite stories to emphasize its importance: an anecdote about how a part on a ballistic submarine had been cannibalized six times.

“The supply system was going to deliver the part only in another 24 months, and it wasn’t going to be the right part, it was the that’s good enough kind of part. Our team … scanned that part, worked through the intellectual property on that part, printed it…put it on a submarine… tested it, and probably in nine weeks after we identified the problem, we had stopped a multi-year cannibalization chain.”

Sermon also elaborated on the Navy’s current “moonshot” projects, such as the development of SUBSAFE valves that can endure the harshest sea pressures and temperatures, an endeavor requiring collaboration across academia, industry, and defense to push the envelope of what's achievable with AM.

“We are not there yet,” said Sermon. “The key to that is material maturity of those six alloys and that is an all hands on deck evolution.”

The conversation took a ‘deep dive’ into the efforts underway to integrate AM into the Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) and Defense Industrial Base (DIB) effectively.

Addressing the operational challenges posed by AM, Sermon highlighted innovative solutions, which include reevaluating Navy supply systems and configuration management, leveraging artificial intelligence to enhance quality control processes.

The panel reflected the urgent demand to leverage all AM's capabilities to scale, notably the establishment of the AM Center of Excellence to work with academia to fast-track the development of essential materials and processes.

“As we’ve advanced on some of our material maturity,” Sermon noted, “we jumped quickly to that next question of how do we get that to scale?”

“I am not worried about us getting there from a manufacturing readiness and a technological readiness perspective,” he said. “We will get there. We have the right team, we have the right partnerships, we’re going to drive to material maturity.”

Sermon highlighted a challenge the Navy will have to solve to integrate new technology across the fleet rapidly. 

“I’m more worried about our procurement processes and our systems," he added. “I can’t afford to update every single drawing of every single system on every single ship in order to transition to AM… We have to come through that in a different way than we have traditionally.”

“We have to go to scale… that’s the mission we’re on.” 

The discussion highlighted the drive for additive manufacturing as a cornerstone of defense innovation. Innovation, collaboration, and technological advancement can propel the Navy’s SIB program as it harnesses the power of AM in the construction of our next generation of submarines.