Global supply chains have been the bedrock of the 21st-century economy and key to the success of global operating defense forces. Yet in less than two months, COVID-19 has “revealed the fragility of the modern supply chain and devastating economic impact resulting from rapid border lockdowns . . . [to which] diverse sourcing and digitization will be key to building stronger, smarter supply chains and ensuring a lasting recovery.”
Supply-chain weakness has hindered the pandemic health response across the United States and the Department of the Navy (DoN), resulting in critical shortages of key materials needed to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even in July 2020, key personal preventative equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks, surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves were still in short supply. Globally, many other critical COVID-19 response items were also in short supply, such as testing swabs, reagents, and viral transport media that are vital for large scale testing. In January 2021, lack of items such as micropipette tips continued to frustrate the response. These materials are necessary to maintain mission readiness across the globe, as demonstrated by the unfortunate events on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and Kidd (DDG-100).
Fortunately, DoN, supported by the Naval Research and Development Establishment (NRDE), has spent the past 20 years quietly developing additive manufacturing and 3D printing technology. Today, additive technologies are combined with other types of manufacturing technologies within the broader field of advanced manufacturing (AM). Collectively, AM can diversify production to create stronger, smarter supply chains needed to ensure DoN is ready to meet the mission in any environment, such as another COVID-19–like pandemic or other crisis situation.
Additive manufacturing is the use of innovative technologies to create existing products and create new products and can include production activities (subtractive or additive) that depend on information, automation, computation, software, sensing, and networking. It extends additive methods by incorporating pathways to scaled production via more traditional means, like injection molding. AM provides game-changing capability for DoN, strengthens supply chains, and provides flexibility for forward deployed forces to increase self-sufficiency.
- Enhance warfighting capabilities through employment of designs not otherwise possible.
- Increase readiness through the production of obsolete or long lead-time items, at or near the point of need.
- Rapid development of new capabilities through prototyping.
- Twenty-first–century civilian and warfighting workforce empowered to innovate.
The DoN additive manufacturing implementation plan also reflects the vision with goals to “provide two overarching benefits to the Navy and Marine Corps, increased readiness/sustainment and enhanced warfighting capabilities.”
The plan is rapidly maturing to support the preceding vision and plan, wherein NRDE supports equipping ships, aircraft squadrons, submarines, and Marine Corps units with additive manufacturing equipment. Sailors and Marines receive basic training and can model, design, and print products for use in voyage or field repairs that can be approved on-site. In one example, Marines are trained by key nonprofit partners, such Building Momentum in Alexandria, VA, in mobile lab design, 3D printing in combat, and computer-assisted design software. They have used this knowledge in the field to design and print not only nonstructural parts, but also critical repair parts for vehicles that would have otherwise been inoperable.
NRDE also works with those sailors and Marines to identify high-failure parts that units need in the field, likely in austere environments both afloat and ashore. NDRE engineers take the parts through a comprehensive review process to create validated digital design files. These files are housed in an online repository (digital warehouse) and available for sailors and Marines to create materials wherever they are deployed, thus offsetting, or in some cases eliminating, the need for the long supply chains that characterized 20th-century operational logistics. Shorter supply chains and on-site production could result in fewer life-threatening missions to bring spare parts to the field.
The foundations underpinning these strategies have been carefully built over 20 years. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing those foundations, but they are holding and adapting as DoN and DoD learn daily.
Agile AM and the Innovation Braid
During the COVID-19 pandemic, DoN commands ashore and at sea have leveraged the additive manufacturing infrastructure to locally produce 15,000 face shields and 3,700 face mask frames to protect both service members and civilians. These commands are successfully increasing readiness through production of critical items near the point of need. The rapid response team quickly mobilized to scale this production through broader advanced manufacturing (AM) capabilities, realizing agility through the combination of AM and the rapid response frameworks.
This agile AM concept resulted from a unique convergence of the DoN additive manufacturing/3D printing community, DoN additive manufacturing plan, the COVID-19 pandemic, DoD’s core principles of command by negation, the Joint Special Operations University concept of an “innovation braid,” and Navy Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Keyport, Washington. In the concept’s implementation, a field command or deployed unit may either request AM support or leverage on-site AM equipment and trained personnel to rapidly prototype a potential solution that then connects back to NRDE. NRDE then takes this request or prototype and quickly cocreates a solution through constant user testing and feedback cycle. The goal during the pandemic is to deliver a scaled solution within 90 days, though it is not a large step to see the value applied to any rapid response.
Dr. Robert Spulak, in Innovate or Die, published by Joint Special Operations University, describes the innovation braid where direct and frequent contact between end-user, technology, and engineer/scientist within Special Operations Forces (SOF) enable rapid innovations to occur rapidly and to be adopted rapidly in the field. Without these close connections and designing for scale and sustainability at the start, innovations fail to transition and die on the vine.
Close contact between key groups described in the innovation braid and agile development was not typical of DoN NRDE prior to COVID-19. In fact, NRDE traditionally moves slowly because of research and development, testing and evaluation, repair actives (depots), and users often being separated in activities across different commands and locations. So how did the agile additive manufacturing concept grow in response to COVID-19? Several fundamental pieces had to connect first through leadership, urgency, and a driving "why" to aid in breaking down barriers.
NavalX Technology Bridges
In an effort to improve coordination and speed innovation, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Geurts established the NavalX team in February 2019. This team serves as DoN’s workforce “super-connector,” focused on sharing best practices across DoN and establishing a network of nationally connected, regional innovation hubs called technology bridges. Tech bridges offer collaboration space in commercial business spaces that ease innovator’s engagement with DoN and foster a strong, regional ecosystem to build productive partnerships with industry, academia, and nontraditional partners such as nonprofits and state governments. Warfare center divisions make up a vast majority of tech bridge locations because of their cadre of scientists and engineers, robust manufacturing and prototyping infrastructure, deep relationships with industry and academia, unique federal lab technology transfer statutory authorities, and enduring leadership support.
NUWC Division Keyport launched as one of the first tech bridges to accelerate delivery of better solutions to warfighters. Keyport took advantage of the tech bridge network to establish partnerships with University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the Veterans Affairs Administration, Army Medical Command, Hewlett Packard, Air Force AFWERX, the DoN additive manufacturing team, and many Navy NRDE organizations to start leading efforts to design and produce critically needed, DoD-approved equipment. This equipment includes AM masks, powered air purifying respirators, face shields, and nasal testing swabs. Further, Keyport is a unique command that combines research and development, depot manufacturing expertise, and logistics engineering in one location, which, combined with the tech bridge network, facilitates rapid innovation and implementation, much like Dr. Spulak’s innovation braid.
Case Study: PPE for USFK
The agile AM concept solidified when the sub-unified command, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), communicated a need for novel, reusable face masks that could be employed by operational users and medical providers and that would take advantage of a large quantity of on-hand, nontraditional filter material to support their COVID-19 response. Further, USFK requested the solution be one that could be made on-site.
Weakness in the global supply chain resulted in long delays for new shipments of critical PPE to USFK. To solve their problem on-site, one USFK staffer, Army Captain Edward Bullard, used local 3D printers and his CAD experience to print the “Captain Bullard” mask to suit their immediate needs. Embedded science advisor to USFK, Mark Buffum, approached his Office of Naval Research Global (ONRG) colleague, Jason Payne, who heads the ONRG TechSolutions Program, for support to further advance their mask design and production efforts. NUWC Keyport’s early AM PPE efforts were recognized by TechSolutions, which resulted in being competitively selected to prototype and scale mask production for USFK. The initial Captain Bullard mask design files were sent to Keyport electronically. Keyport’s Rapid Prototyping Team, under Bryce Weber, quickly mobilized their broad AM expertise, much like a general contractor, to coordinate a team of specialists to create a master plan, incorporating the logisticians, sustainment engineers, the tech-bridge director, chief engineer, and intellectual property attorney, users, and many others, to delivery rapid solutions to USFK.
The innovation braid posits that rapid innovation and implementation require close and constant contact between key groups from need generation through delivery. There is no “hand-off” of one process from one team to another—just constant progression under a single team that brings in specialists as needed to finish the product.
In this case, Keyport coordinated across NRDE and the tech bridge network to identify two other potential mask designs that could meet USFK’s demand signal. The coordination required robust communications to keep the project moving forward by maintaining alignment among the stakeholder, implementer, facilitator and compliance manager.
Within days of initial project acceptance, Keyport and NRDE received the USFK prototype Captain Bullard mask and filter. Immediately, the collective team, USFK and NRDE, set to test and evaluate the materials, create initial medical documentation by Army MedCom, assess and adapt mask prototypes, collect industry and government best options, and start documenting functional requirements. Prototypes were sent back within days for initial user feedback. The TechSolutions director stated that he had never seen a prototype delivered faster.
While manufacturing the prototype, Keyport simultaneously worked with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Rapid Prototyping Office and procurement teams to create the acquisition pathways for these products to be designed for manufacturability, sustainability, and the ability to be immediately licensed to industry for large-scale acquisition, if needed. AM also is about providing pathways to scale. The initial 3D-printed prototypes were adapted early by NUWC Keyport to support other scalable, traditional manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding. This design then allows casting tooling or injection molds to be delivered to USFK for them to produce a high quantity of high-quality masks without electricity on-site. Agile AM adapted to COVID-19 provided USFK a customized, cocreated, and validated mask within 90 days that it can produce on-site at-scale or license to industry for production through DLA.
The ability to bridge supply chain issues and a means to provide forward-deployed part manufacturing will allow for increased operational availability through resilience. The ability for units in the field or at sea to leverage the advanced manufacturing frameworks to either manufacture equipment or leverage the NRDE and the tech bridge network to create new capabilities at scale will be key to building stronger, smarter supply chains and ensuring a mission-ready Department of the Navy. AM is a vital component of Navy logistical supply support in the future. It is critical the service maintain the momentum to advance this new capability to the fleet.