WEST BETHESDA, Md. —
In 1986, Colorado-born inventor Chuck Hull received the first patent for a 3D printing technology. At the time, he told his wife that it would take roughly 30 years before the technology would be available for people to have at home.
For a technological prediction, Hull was not too far off. Today, the 3D printer is not what a toaster or television is to a household, but the additive manufacturing process that it is a part of has steadily become a staple in parts of American industries, to include the United States military. As the world of additive manufacturing grows and users unveil new possibilities, the need for individuals to be skilled in utilizing the tools for the subject also increases.
Ryan Fisher and Jacob Aljundi, engineers in the Additive Manufacturing Branch at Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division, have stepped up to the challenge of teaching additive manufacturing to service members. For the past year, the duo have been part of a Carderock task, sponsored by Marine Corps Systems Command, to train deployed Marines on how to effectively use this technology as its role in the service grows. The work falls under larger thrusts to enable manufacturing agility through low-volume production in maintenance and operational environments, as well as to train the Department of the Navy (DON) workforce as outlined in the DON Additive Manufacturing Implementation Plan. The AM Implementation Plan is coordinated by the deputy chief of naval operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics (OPNAV N4), with work in AM being led by Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Marine Corps, Naval Air System Commands and the Office of Naval Research.
In partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and the training teams supporting NAVSEA’s At-Sea Additive Manufacturing Program, the team develops and provides training courses for Sailors and Marines that are provided to the fleet whenever they are needed.
“When Gen. Robert Neller was commandant of the Marine Corps, he was pushing [additive] technology forward,” Fisher said. “Through what is now the Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell (AMOC) within the Marine Corps, we have been providing additive manufacturing trainings all over the world.”
The team has supported multiple training events across the continental U.S., but additional support was required by Marines overseas. Fisher and Aljundi, who had specialized training in additive manufacturing, were identified by the AMOC as the team most qualified to teach this content. Shortly thereafter, Fisher and Aljundi began flying to various countries using their expertise to provide weeklong courses on how to apply additive manufacturing into the daily functions of deployed Marines.
“Giving somebody a couple million dollars in equipment and expecting them to be a master of it has never gone well,” Fisher said. “We’re not at that point yet. If they do not know how to use it, they will not use it, the technology won’t advance, and they won’t see any benefit for it.”
In order to be able to use the parts they make, the Marine Corps has created a risk-based approval approach that gives the commander in the field the knowledge to determine whether the part can be used. Many printed parts are quickly approved.
During the training, the duo teaches their students how to use their recently fielded 3D printers, build parts effectively and maintain their machines. To overcome the challenge of making people comfortable with new concepts they have minimal previous understanding of, Aljundi said that they start with small projects to build confidence.
“We have had some trainings where Marines said they don’t think it is useful, so it’s our job to show them how it can be useful, save them time and make their lives easier,” he said. “They can be nervous by new technology, so we give them examples of things we’ve done in the past with other Marines and get them thinking about how it can be useful instead of just telling them.”
Over the past year, the team has provided their services at a multitude of locations between North America, Europe and Asia. They are not the only Navy employees who conduct additive manufacturing training, with other groups also supporting out of the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, the NAVSEA Warfare Centers, as well as the Navy’s Regional Maintenance Centers. The Carderock AMOC team is the main expeditionary manufacturing support group for the Marine Corps and has ventured to Kuwait, Bahrain, Spain and Japan, among other places. When dealing with stateside requests, Aljundi said they prefer to enlist the help of partners like the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab team, so they can focus on the overseas tasks that require more preparation and screenings to execute.
A normal schedule for the team starts with receiving a request from a group that needs training or advanced maintenance on their machines. Ideally, Fisher and Aljundi subsequently give their technical director a 30-day notice for their travel plans, during which they create a plan of action based on the specific needs of the requestor. However, there are times when they have to react much more rapidly.
“I think the shortest notice that we’ve been able to accommodate was 36 hours,” Fisher said. “We already had the paperwork in, then the training was supposed to be cancelled, but it wasn’t. Thankfully, we had the experience of being to this country three times prior, so we were able to quickly prepare ourselves.”
By technology standards, 3D printing is still relatively new and there is much more research to do in the coming years. Aljundi and Fisher are seeing the growth of additive manufacturing’s impact on the military firsthand through their work. Besides the Marine Corps training, Carderock also supports the fleet through NAVSEA-sponsored AM Afloat efforts where systems are installed shipboard and Sailors are trained. Over the past several years, multiple ships have seen printer installations that also may include limited machining capability. Between these efforts, the Navy is working to effectively get additive manufacturing out to the fleet.