By Neal Orringer, vice president, Defense R&D, 3D Systems

3D Systems' Chuck Hull, Kevin MacAlea and HII's Charles Southall discuss metal 3D printing at Newport News shipbuilding
Image credit: Huntington Ingalls Industries. 3D Systems' Chuck Hull, Kevin McAlea and HII's Charles Southall discuss metal 3D printing at Newport News shipbuilding

Last week, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) announced that its Newport News Shipbuilding division has partnered with 3D Systems to develop metal additive manufacturing technologies expected to accelerate the adoption of metal 3D printing in the naval shipbuilding industry.

“This is a game-changing and disruptive technology for our industry,” said Charles Southall, Newport News’ vice president of engineering and design. “In addition to our ongoing digital shipbuilding efforts, 3D printing could transform our design standards, and this technology has the potential to be one of the most significant manufacturing innovations in our industry since we began building nuclear-powered ships in the 1950s.”

But what does this announcement actually mean for U.S. shipbuilding and our national security?

Well, it begins with a little bit of history: From 1968 to 2009, the Navy commissioned, and Newport News built, 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers—about one every four years.  Now the Navy is on pace to buy a new Ford class aircraft carrier every five years. Newport News is now about 75% complete with its second Ford Class – the U.S.S. Kennedy. And it is truly a technological marvel—far more advanced and complex than prior ships, with a wide range of advanced technologies.  According to the Government Accountability Office, these include: an aircraft launch system that would use electromagnetics—versus steam—to propel aircraft off of the ship (EMALS), an advanced arresting gear (AAG) with an electric motor to recover aircraft, and a dual band radar (DBR) that would use two planar (stationary) radars to provide air traffic control, ship self-defense, and other capabilities. These technologies, along with new design features like a new propulsion system, an enlarged flight deck, and an aft positioned island, would improve combat capability, while simultaneously reducing acquisition and life-cycle costs.”

Today, there are efforts to return to a more rapid ship construction rate at reduced per-unit costs— to sustain a larger Naval fleet and project U.S. power around the globe.  This will require substantial innovation in manufacturing processes to reduce part-counts, consolidate supply chains and enhance ship performance.

Last week’s announcement marks a concerted effort to do just that. Direct Metal Printing (DMP) has the potential to help the Navy “design for affordability,” by enabling new ship component designs that simply cannot be undertaken any other way. Moreover, critical metallic parts that often take 12 months-- or even longer-- to fabricate via conventional casting, welding or joining, can be built in a matter of days through 3D printing.

However, adoption of this technology will require qualification – assuring the Navy that Direct Metal Printing will produce parts repeatedly, accurately, and with resilience equal to or greater than traditional production processes.  The Newport News Shipbuilding/3D Systems partnership will establish methods for designing, building and (importantly) validating metal 3D printed parts rapidly. 

Rather than subject parts to excruciatingly time-consuming nondestructive testing, this effort includes:

  • Developing new quality control in real-time (embedding new sensors jointly integrated/developed by Newport News/3DSystems inside a 3D printer)
  • Establishing a solid data-set attesting to these quality control methodologies
  • Validating specific ship parts that will be built via DMP
  • 3D printing with marine-grade metals and validating specific ship parts produced using DMP

Additionally, 3D Systems is proud to be working with Newport News – the most technologically advanced shipbuilding enterprise in the world.  Together we will develop these capabilities and train a next-generation workforce and supply chain to adopt DMP for building metal ship components. In the end, 3D Systems’ and Newport News’ objectives are the same—to outfit the U.S. Navy with the most advanced technology possible, at the best value to the taxpayer.  Our partnership will certainly meet these objectives, while also revolutionizing the manufacture of the world’s most potent platforms for projecting power—the U.S. Aircraft Carrier. 

View the press release