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NSWCDD on the ‘ground floor’ of 3D Printing

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications Division | Jan. 14, 2016

(DAHLGREN, Va.) From reproducing a human head to rapidly prototyping a robot using 3D printing (Additive Manufacturing), technological advances make this a reality for today’s military. At NAVSEA’s Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) and the Combat Direction Systems Activity (CDSA) Dam Neck in Virginia, the Navy is expanding the use of 3D Printing across its science and engineering community.

Navy officials hosted a 3D Print-A-Thon at NSWCDD on Dec. 2. The event exposed the Dahlgren workforce to available 3D technologies, educated engineers and scientists on 3D design guidelines, allowed experimentation and sought out innovative ideas to leverage 3D Printing to benefit the warfighter.

“We are on the ground floor of 3D Printing,” said Dennis McLaughlin, NSWCDD Technical Director, addressing approximately 100 participants. “We need to move past the trinket stage and come up with examples for senior leaders to see…Let’s come up with ideas for what else we can do.”

NSWCDD was the first warfare center with a metal 3D printer. These devices significantly reduce production time, allowing rapid deployment of equipment part replacements back to the field. Several products created using 3D Printing were on display at the Print-A Thon.

Attendees saw a replica of a warship’s Command Center Design console, a small low-fidelity 3D model used to gather input on layouts from the fleet on both coasts. Due to the portable, lightweight nature, these models are reused over an extended amount of time, significantly reducing hours required to create small scale mockups by hand.  3D printing the components saves a considerable amount of time and labor while producing more durable models.

Another example of rapid 3D development is the Rapid Prototype HexaPod Robot which is in the early research and development phase. The robot could provide several advantages to the warfighter such as low-power movement through difficult terrain, considering its small, covert, low-profile heat signature. Engineers are able to transition from concept to full prototype in four weeks as compared to three to four months without 3D technology.

Just 12 hours before the December Print-A-Thon, engineers decided the robot was too heavy and was able to remanufacture the base and top within a short frame of time, reducing the weight from 2.65 kilograms to 2.06 kilograms. This is reflective of the bright future 3D printing holds for the warfighter. "The ability to move additive manufacturing into the field would allow for equipment to be made on demand, reducing the overall footprint on the ground and dramatically increasing flexibility," said Jason Phillips, an NSWCDD engineer in the Disruptive Technologies branch.

NSWCDD is also realizing the benefits of reproducing human anatomy thanks to 3D Printing. Minimal effort is needed to fabricate complex human features such as a human head. At the Print-A-Thon, Kevin Streeff, instrumentation engineer, demonstrated how a laser tracking camera would be used to define a head.  In real-time as the head of a plastic bust was scanned, a digital version appeared on the computer screen to set the stage for printing. A whole body scan can be completed in less than two hours. This far-reaching capability includes prosthetics design and manufacturing, cosmetic and corrective surgery design, custom fit masks, and face pieces based on scanning living anatomy.  The scanning technology can also be used scan mechanical components for modeling, analysis or re-engineering.

These innovations were among 10 featured at the Print-A-Thon. “We have a suite of varying 3D capabilities across the base,” said Ricky Moore, Lead Mechanical Engineer for NSWCDD’s Disruptive Technologies Branch. “We are developing lessons learned with regard to fabrication and design.”

President Obama has deemed 3D printing a technology that has “potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” he remarked during his 2013 State of the Union Address.  The Department of Defense has been a leader in utilizing 3D printing to save time and money. With origins dating back to the 1970s, 3D printing contrasts traditional manufacturing by adding, instead of subtracting, substances such as metals or plastics to create an object.

For almost a decade, NSWCDD has employed additive manufacturing to reduce development time, but the focus on solving fleet problems began in 2013 when CDSA Dam Neck, working with CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell initiated the Navy’s consolidated effort to bring 3D printing to Fleet sailors.  The Navy’s first-ever “Print-the-Fleet” was hosted by CDSA in June 2013 to raise Fleet awareness of additive manufacturing and provide an understanding of how 3D printing can solve Fleet problems. This two-day event also provided Navy AM professionals first-hand feedback from Sailors on what they would like to see printed.