National Harbor, Md. – A U.S. Navy carrier in the perhaps not too distant future will have the ability to create everything from replacement parts to organs to miniature combat drones with 3-D printers, Navy officials say.
Advances in additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, are happening so quickly that ideas for its uses have outstripped the Navy's ability to get into places where officials know they want it -- aboard ships at sea.
"There are significant safety concerns," Lt. Ben Kohlman of the Chief of Naval Operations' Rapid Innovation Cell said on Tuesday during a presentation at Sea Air Space 2014. "The powder that's used in the aluminum or titanium is highly flammable."
And there is also figuring out where such a shop would go on a ship. Right now, 3D printing is done at shops on land – not a "dynamic environment" like a ship at sea, Coast Guard Commander Tyson Weinert said.
"They can't be subjected to the pitch, the roll, the yaw [of a ship], so now you've got those forces acting on a printer," he said. "What is the tolerance for that, how will the printer itself react to those other forces? You can try to manage the center of gravity as best you can, try and get the safest sot with the minimal amount of movement, but what is the trade off? What is on the ship already ... versus where will the printers have to go? So that is a whole design process in itself."
However, it's only a matter of time before these printers reach the sea, Navy officials said. And its uses could go far beyond printing a specialized bolt.
Thomas Campbell, a research associate professor with the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, said a California-based company, Organovo, expects to print "a living human liver" later this year.
"As opposed to rushing a soldier, or war fighter, or sailor to [a land-based hospital] if you have an emergency, just print the organ right on the ship, do the surgery right on the ship, save the human's life and not have to disrupt the service," Campbell said.
Cartilage will be printable in the same way, he said.
The Army is already using 3D printers in combat. The Army's Rapid Equipping Force deployed to Afghanistan with 3D printers. Engineers have worked with units in Afghanistan to develop solutions to combat problems without having to ship parts into Afghanistan. The printer produces them in country.
College and even high school students already are manufacturing small flying drones using off-the-shelf 3D printing systems, Campbell said.
Kohlman said he could imagine the benefits of a carrier having the ability to mass produce them should it come up against an enemy with a robust anti-aircraft system.
"What if the carrier could just print hundreds and hundreds of these drones and saturate the airspace and totally destroy their radar stations," he said.
"It may not be ready for ships yet, but those processes absolutely have to be figured out," Campbell said.