In January 1955, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) transmitted the well-known signal, “Underway on nuclear power.” This was a testament to the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP) and the determination and resilience of its leader, Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. By 2020, submarines had steamed more than 166 million miles on nuclear power.
It is unlikely that even the most ardent supporter of additive manufacturing (AM) is ready to say, “Underway on additive manufacturing.” But with bold action, a true vision, achievable goals, and pointers from the man who made nuclear power possible, perhaps the Navy can find a new Admiral Rickover and give AM a makeover.
What made NNPP successful?
The NNPP had a sound scientific and engineering basis, a robust industrial infrastructure, and unrelenting standards. It also benefited from visionary leadership, a consolidation of all aspects—from design and construction to qualification, training, and certification—under one chain of command, and an objective and verifiable measure of effectiveness demonstrated by a platform being able to operate independent from a logistical fuel support system.
Additive manufacturing currently has few if any of these elements. For years the Navy has nibbled around the edges of AM, bouncing from one small project or initiative to another, with results at the tactical level but nothing in the way of a strategic vision and without the money and commitment to back it up. The approach has been centralized but not consolidated, with approvals held at relatively high levels and encumbered by existing processes, such as departure from specification requests, that were not designed for a planned and vetted substitution such as a 3D-printed part.
Prescribing measures of success at the highest level of criticality impedes the progress of the overall AM program. This is not to say such certification programs are not important. Anyone who has been underway on a ship, below the surface on a submarine, or flown an aircraft understands the criticality of material qualification. However, the Navy has long recognized the unit commander’s ability to make tactical and technical decisions on their platform when necessity dictates. This is what a war-fighter does, and AM can and will give the war-fighter more options.
Maybe not all parts can or should be 3D printed. Or maybe good enough is good enough. These are tough decisions, and to implement AM, the Navy must not only print parts, but also train its leaders on the processes so they can make these tough decisions.
When nuclear power was entering the picture, it was spearheaded by a single-minded pioneer. Rickover understood the dedication and ownership a “no fail” mission required. He created a holistic and introspective approach to accomplish the mission and to cut though institutional resistance and bureaucratic red tape. Like the NNPP in 1955, the Navy AM program must start somewhere. Without the Nautilus, there would be no USS Virginia (SSN-774)
The Place to Start
The Navy needs to articulate a clear strategic vision. A straightforward and achievable proposal could be: “Establish additive manufacturing as a mainstream part of the supply and maintenance system, with a streamlined manufacture, testing, and approval process to fully integrate it as part of warfighter self-sufficiency.”
To achieve this vision, the service would need to establish a champion—someone who is both a technical expert and not afraid to tell leaders something they may not want to hear. There are AM centers of excellence across the Naval Air and Sea Systems Commands, mainly at the warfare centers, as well as a small cadre of subject matter experts in various locations, connected by a common cause and often by their own initiative, but not under a single umbrella. This is the opposite of Admiral Rickover’s approach. Rickover is legendary for his commitment to training all nuclear power officers, for controlling all the levels of power, and ultimately for the success of the NNPP.
The Naval Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, and Office of Naval Research have a host of capabilities that are not always used in a coherent fashion. The innovation and energy of the staff and students at the Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School, for example, could be brought together to form a “knowledge management” hub to accelerate new technology and serve as a “process owner” for generating a formal parts catalog, as well as designing new equipment and parts.
Combining all aspects of the AM universe—personnel, training, and technology—in a single process would be a game changer, perhaps eventually rising to match the strategic significance of the NNPP.
Moving forward, the Navy should:
• Make additive manufacturing a program of record and fund it.
• Create an AM “czar” at the flag level and align AM activities across the Navy and with external partners under this individual.
• Integrate AM in the Navy supply and maintenance system and its industrial base.
• Remove barriers and promote innovation. Consider using the Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) process.1
• Empower, advance, and promote agile use of AM at the unit level.
• Standardize a comprehensive AM package and ensure every regional maintenance center, ship, and squadron has or has access to industrial metal and polymer 3D printing.
• Have the warfare centers of excellence, Naval Academy, and Naval Post- graduate School establish a collaborative Knowledge Management Center and idea incubator for AM innovation.
• Expand training and proficiency in AM and establish a naval enlisted classification (NEC).
With the formality of a program of record, as well as the funding and training to support it, AM could foster a revolution like the one being seen in Ukraine, where small shops have developed patterns and fielded battlefield parts and equipment such as drones under the most adverse conditions and had a direct impact on the war effort. No warfighter in Ukraine is questioning the material qualification of 3D-printed parts; rather, they are exploiting this technical capability to make tactical gains. The Navy should not wait until shots are fired to follow their lead.
No one knows where AM will be in 15 years, with one exception: If the Navy does not give AM a makeover, it will not be the significant force readiness multiplier it could be.
1. See Naval Sea Systems Command, “TANG,” www.navsea.navy.mil/Resources/TANG/.