The ability to print a single critical part for a Navy ship on a 3-D printer at sea could change both the design and manning of future vessels.

Navy leaders said Wednesday at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space exposition and conference that the Navy is trying to figure out how expansive crews could utilize 3-D printers – a technology that has started to transform maintenance operations in commercial aviation and maritime industries.

"Do we want to turn our warships into manufacturing ships ... How do we forward deploy [the technology]? Do we want to forward deploy it?" said William Frazier, chief scientist for air vehicle engineering and senior scientist for materials engineering at NAVAIR. "These are issues that can only be answered after the technical possibilities have been [established]."

Frazier said that non-critical metallic parts already are being printed and used on aircraft, but the crucial development for moving the technology forward will be manufacturing parts that enable and keep a plane flying.

Liz McMichael, NAVAIR's team leader on additive manufacturing, said she intends to have a "flight critical" metallic part manufactured within three years. She also wants test the capability of printing explosives.

A warship capable of manufacturing critical parts means less downtime for aircraft, since replacements may be made on the spot. And a ship that can print explosives for warheads would have different and lighter storage requirements because the stored explosives materials would be inert, she said.

Additional weight is removed and space made available if numerous parts such as gaskets and fasteners – which Navy ships carry by the scores if not hundreds – can be made aboard ships.

A Navy ship outfitted with 3-D printing systems might also mean a change in crew requirements, at least in the short term, McMichael said. The first at-sea manufacturers will likely be contractors.

"We have got to be able to work with industry and source to industry," she said. "Most likely we would do this the way we do any source work."

Navy sailors could eventually do the mission, but "there's some questions about that.

"Longer term anything is possible, but as we move forward we have to kind of take baby steps – here's how we demonstrate it, here's how we start to transition it. We need qualified people. I do not want to say three years from now we'll have sailors off printing these things. We're not there yet."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

Related Video