The USS Essex (pictured) is the first Navy warship with a 3D printer.

The USS Essex (pictured) is the first Navy warship with a 3D printer.

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Navy has put a 3D printer on a warship for the first time. That’s a small revolution but don’t expect world-changing results any time soon.

Just ask Lt. Benjamin Kohlmann, a fighter pilot and member of the Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), a handpicked handful of junior officers and enlisted personnel who made getting 3D printers into the hands of sailors their first project. An earlier effort put a printer on an unarmed Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) for a few days, Kohlmann said, but now the USS Essex, a full-up amphibious assault ship, has a printer permanently installed. The crew has been making everything from disposable medical supplies (think plastic syringes), to a new cap they designed for an oil tank, to model planes to move around their mock-up of the flight deck, but they aren’t printing out spare parts for real airplanes any time soon.

“The low-hanging fruit [is] the small trinkets,” Kohlmann told me yesterday, from brackets and clasps to mock-ups for prototyping. But to make a mechanical component for a ship or an aircraft, “additive manufacturing has to get to the point where a part printed on the machine has the same strength and overall properties that a cast part has,” he said. “In some cases that is the case today. In others, in many more cases, it’s not…. Tensile and strength ratings don’t meet what’s required for high-stress environments.”

In fact, it’s an open question how well the Essex’s printer will even work once the ship gets underway. So far, Essex hasn’t left the dock with the printer aboard because the ship’s still finishing an 18-month maintenance overhaul. Part of the experiment will be to put instrumentation on the printer to see how it copes with engine vibration and the rolling seas.

It’s very much a crawl-walk-run approach, Kohlman told me, and “we are currently in ‘crawl.’”

3D printers ashore have gotten to “walk,” Kohlmann went on. Military labs and the defense industry have used additive manufacturing for years, principally to create quick prototypes but, increasingly, to build actual components. General Electric says it is making a high-complexity, high-temperature jet engine valve using 3D printing. Lockheed Martin and additive manufacturer Sciaky recently showed off a spar for the F-35 fighter – not yet certified for actual use –  which 3D printing consultant Vivek Saxena estimates to be about 10 feet long.

So, 3D printing is “not just small parts,” Saxena told the DC chapter of the Royal Aeronautical Society last week. But it is still small business, he emphasized during his talk at the British Embassy. Additive manufacturing grew to an estimated $2 billion worldwide last year, he said. That’s not much of the $10.5 trillion figure for all manufacturing worldwide. In the aerospace business, 3D printing comprises just $250 million of a $160 billion total: a whopping 0.16 percent. In the most optimistic scenarios, said Saxena, a vice-president at ICF SH&E, additive manufacturing in aerospace will grow eight-fold by 2023, to about $2 billion – but since aerospace as a whole will grow too, that’s still less than 1 percent.

That said, Saxena went on, the defense sector might lead the way in several areas.  There’s unmanned aircraft, for example, where safety requirements are less strict because there’re no people aboard. (Safety certification is the biggest hurdle for 3D printing, not the technology, he told the group). Additive manufacturing can also make small lots of parts for older weapons systems whose components aren’t in production anymore, like the Royal Air Force’s Tornado, for which the RAF is now using a 3D printer to make non-safety-of-flight items.

“I do a lot of prototype parts in additive [manufacturing],” said Pratt & Whitney vice-president Alan Epstein, speaking alongside Saxena at the British Embassy. “It’s sort of a dream technology for DARPA. It came out of DARPA,” in fact, since the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency invested heavily in additive manufacturing in the 1980s.

But, I asked them, what about the military logistician’s dream of putting a 3D printer on every ship and at every forward base so troops can print out spare parts as needed instead of relying on long lines of supply?

“Come back in 20 years,” Epstein replied.

“I’ll give you an analogy,” he continued. Consider bread, one of humanity’s oldest manufactured products. After about 12,000 years, he said, we’ve simplified and systematized the process to the point that you can go buy a bread-making machine: “You can put the components in, and press the button, and bread comes out. It’s not very good bread — but it’s bread.”

What the military logistics community wants is the additive manufacturing equivalent of the bread-maker, something troops can toss materials into, press a button, and produce the needed part. Epstein doesn’t expect to see that happen for decades.

Lt. Kohlmann was similarly cautious. 3D printing may take off like the Internet in the 1990s, he told me in our interview, or it may plateau. But the potential benefits are big enough that it’s worth getting the new generation of Navy sailors familiar with the technology.

“Now who knows what kind of widget they would create, but I think it’s the cultural piece that’s going to be the [big] driver for now,” he told me. What matters most is letting people “play with the technology” so they can get comfortable with it, get proficient with it, and get ready to make the most of it when and if it does take off.  That, Lt. Kohlmann said, “will put us in a far better position to adapt to those rapidly evolving realities.”


  • Curtis Conway

    When the 3D printers start layering graphene we will really have something. Carbon is one of the strongest substances we use in industry. The use of carbon will increase the utility of produced item via greater strength.

  • Don Bacon

    Well bless Lieutenant Kohlmann, who is contributing along with other junior personnel including enlisted to “put us in a far better position to adapt to those rapidly evolving realities.”

    With the US military it’s always gadgets and things that are going to put them over the top, while the hide-bound archaic personnel system which is getting more top-heavy all the time is stacked against the young men and women who yearn to have some influence on the system. I’m afraid that Kohlman has had his moment of glory and will now be suffocated in the bureaucracy until he makes a sensible decision to bail to some place where he would be appreciated. Or, he’ll stay in and learn to get along by going along.

    Never mind the gadgets, how about the people? With the military it’s always things, and never mind that it’s people that count most toward accomplishing the mission. At a time when technology and education (and common sense) have enabled corporations to flatten their organizational structures, and allow junior employees to have a say in running the operation according to their initiatives and their abilities, why do the military and naval services stick with the Napoleonic system of a dozen enlisted grades and another dozen commissioned ranks above them, with over 900 flag ranks in the active service, many of them *****ing the pooch? How about THAT rapidly evolving reality?

    That’s my rant. I’m done on that.

    • Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

      The “CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell” that Kohlmann’s part of is an attempt to change some of that sclerosis and empower junior officers & enlisted personnel to innovate. I’ll be talking with them more for further stories.

      • Don Bacon

        Thank you, man. Shake it up.

      • Mike


        Thank you for this article… The more that real innovation is talked about and demonstrated, the more those junior officers and enlisted will be able to make real progress… To me, “innovation” is like a Polaris submarine banging against the roof of the artic ice while the senior ranks (that are way to populated) are wondering what the shaking is all about… Go young one’s, as it is your innovations that are going to save all branches of our military services!….

        And, God only knows, that will make Gary and many of the rest of us, more comfortable as more of those “innovators” look at the expensive “junk” currently clogging our branches to the determent of the troops and sailors who do the real “death and dying” when the hammer falls…! They are the one’s who will finally be heard saying, that Indeed,” the king has no clothes”…

    • Gary Church

      “-the hide-bound archaic personnel system which is getting more top-heavy
      all the time is stacked against the young men and women who yearn to
      have some influence on the system.”

      Plenty of empowerment until you disagree; they you have just empowered yourself out of a career. It’s the truth. No one, but NO ONE gets away with rocking the boat. They never forget and it catches up with you in proportion to the size of the transgression. All this talk about revolutionizing the military is pure baloney. It is a game to please someone to get something that will help your career. That is how you get promoted and you can wrap it in the flag and get all upset but the truth is they are a bunch of self-serving hypocrites with very few exceptions. They convince themselves they are not and they are doing a good job but they all know deep inside what a rotten scam it all is. It always has been that way. The two oldest professions. War, as a famous historian once said, is just robbery on a larger scale. Since war has been largely ended due to nuclear weapons the only ones left they can steal from are their own people. That is the defense industry. They day they let officers go to work for defense companies was the end of any possibility of trusting them.

  • Clarkward

    It’ll be fine. I’ve built two of them at home, and they can print in ABS, nylon, even polycarbonate. Some of the newer ones coming on line can even do carbon fiber. Big, professional printers can do metals, and that’s even including parts for the commercial aerospace industry like fuel nozzles for jet engines. This is not Buck Rogers stuff. For God’s sake, I’ve got one on my dresser and it costs under $400 to build. Glad the Navy got some fresh minds looking at new ways to do things. Wish I was still in so that I could get involved!

    • Beno

      I too have used 3D printing for a while. but with many models zeroing to the horizontal is critical.
      How well does your printer work when you pitch it randomly side to side about 20 degrees, and translate it up and down about 6 foot ?
      Still getting that 0.01mm tollerance ?
      Dam practicalities of the real world.
      mmmmmm, never mind ever onward. i think this tech with be particually usefull in naval terms. but not for a little bit till its ruggedised.

      • Clarkward

        Dude, I served in submarines for 9 years, I’m pretty sure that I’ve got a feel for the environment it’ll be used in.

        • Beno

          Wow 9 years, nice one guy. I happly bow to your experience.
          I really think SSN and SSBN are proberbly the very best place to put these thing.
          What do you think ?
          What was your average tour of duty ?

          • Clarkward

            Typically, a fast attack sub goes out for a number of short runs for training, short-notice taskings, and does a 3 or 6 month deployment every 1.5 years or so. It varies a bunch, that was just my experience. SSBNs do a more predictable schedule on deterrence patrols that are 3 months long or thereabouts. I think that there are a lot of plastic parts that could be printed on demand (levers or knobs that break, parts of switch assemblies, etc). I expect that ABS or Nylon would be the material to use, at least initially. PLA is way too heat-sensitive to use in an engineroom. As it would happen, a younger friend of mine who went into subs after talking with me just received a box with an Ormerod 3D printer and he’s talking with people onboard ship about what they can do… Totally doable. I would say that with rolls and such in mind, I would beef up the frame some for shipboard duty. My plywood Rostock frame is fine on my desk but I wouldn’t want it printing on the surface during a violent storm. Same for my Mendel. Good printers, but $10 worth of raw materials would be all it takes to get them more seaworthy. If the Navy really got into it, having this tech group print some items and do strength testing of new designs would be a great idea. The Navy has a uniform parts system, I see no reason why they can’t have their own version of Thingiverse with tested and approved parts to supplement what crews draw up on-ship. Example would be a wafer from a multilayer switch. One gets cracked underway, 1000 miles from a friendly port, a pre-approved design is on the LAN so that the electricians know that it’s good to go in a mission-critical application. The possibilities are literally endless.

  • Chernenko

    L-3, Lockhead, Boeing, General Dynamics, and any other large contractors going to start lobbying congress to ban these now.

  • omegatalon

    The 3D printers in question are table size as we’re still decades from something like Star Trek where you can get a energy-matter converter to build just about everything; it would be something if the 3D printers could build patches or replacement wings.