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CHIPS Articles: NIWC Pacific’s agile digital workflow tool gets 3D-printed products into warfighter hands quickly

NIWC Pacific’s agile digital workflow tool gets 3D-printed products into warfighter hands quickly
By Maison Piedfort, Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific - June 30, 2020
SAN DIEGO — A Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific (NIWC Pacific) team rapidly designed and implemented a digital workflow tool that has distributed over 19,500 additive manufacturing (AM) requisitions across the entire Department of the Navy (DoN) over the last three months.

NIWC Pacific’s Digital Thread for Additive Manufacturing (DTAM) Team had been designing the workflow for a year and a half before the global pandemic, but pivoted in March, tailoring the workflow tool specifically for AM projects supporting the COVID-19 response.

“Our goal is to create digital tools and infrastructure that can be used to further advance capabilities already available for additive manufacturing,” said Jess Fuller, DTAM team lead. “Our team was perfectly positioned to pivot our efforts, tailor them to emergent needs, and work quickly to deliver a lean — but effective — product. It was a great way to put the workflow to the test.”

The team used a commercial-off-the-shelf collaborative, web-based platform, to house the workflow tool, which makes it easily accessible for both AM producers and fleet users.

The workflow acts as a master organizer for supply and demand. By using direct, standardized, open communication about printing capacity and capability, demand signals from the fleet are more efficiently collected and disseminated to available worksites across the DON.

Scientists and engineers can also use the tool to manage their own printer availability.

“The workflow provides situational awareness of the DoN organic industrial base capability and capacity to senior Navy leadership,” said Josh Heller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (DASN) Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) Additive Manufacturing Implementation lead. “With the workflow, Navy leadership is empowered to make operational decisions about supporting public and private sectors — such as hospitals — and our internal DON needs across the fleet down to the unit level.”

The rapid execution of the new workflow tool has enabled AM labs to make major contributions to the Navy’s COVID-19 response, most notably by collecting and disseminating orders for face masks and face shields currently totaling over 19,500 and counting. Orders are routed to AM labs at systems commands like Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), and across the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) enterprise.

“What it’s making possible is that ability to take very large orders — say, the 10,000 unit orders — and disseminate that among all the different warfare centers,” said Fuller. “We could push 500 units to NAVWAR, 3,000 to NAVSEA, 3,000 to NAVAIR and so on. It's giving us the ability to collaborate in a way we haven’t before.”

Because of the workflow, systems commands are able to print and send face masks to warfighters more quickly.

The team was already connected to other warfare centers — for example, US Marine Corps Marine Logistics Group, Naval Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center, and NAVSEA Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport — before the novel coronavirus outbreak via an AM executive committee. But the committee quickly transformed itself into a working group with representatives, gathered from across the DoN to aid in coronavirus response.

“The committee’s goal is basically to get together and figure out what we can do to help with coronavirus response from an additive manufacturing perspective,” said Fuller.

Because those running the COVID-19 response task force are the same people who were already sponsoring the workflow project, Fuller’s team was granted leeway to adapt to coronavirus needs. Those same representatives sought a tool they could push down to labs at their own warfare centers, allowing for easy buy-in across the DoN and swift implementation. Systems commands like NAVSEA and NAVAIR are now using the workflow to manage AM demand more effectively.

“We’re pushing demand signals down across hundreds of different 3D printers,” said Fuller. “A lot of the requisitions we’re getting are specifically for the warfighters themselves. So having this workflow that is able to take on these large orders and deliver them out to the fleet more quickly — that’s huge.”

Before implementation of the digital workflow, demand signals would be routed via email. The digital workflow allows labs an easy snapshot of how many jobs are assigned to their site, what printers are doing which assignments, and how long it will take for those printers to complete the requisitions.

“You can see which labs and printers have availability right there, across the DoN, all in one snapshot,” said Fuller.

Capturing this snapshot took some upfront work in the form of managing AM capability across 60 AM sites.

“We had to rapidly synchronize with AM labs across the DON to learn their capabilities and collect points of contact of technical and administrative personnel who could help us coordinate the demand signals being pushed down from senior leadership,” said Heller. “And all this data had to be captured and validated – all while working remotely.”

Fuller views the lean launch of the workflow in response to the coronavirus as a sort of field research.

“It will change — we made this version just for COVID-19 response,” Fuller said. “Our goal was originally to come up with a pilot digital ecosystem that could be used for AM — and not just at NIWC Pacific, but for all of the DON. We’re going to use information we’re gleaning now to make our long-term solution work even better across the whole Navy.”

She explained that the project, funded by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), was an initiative born from the CNO’s design for maritime superiority, which emphasizes the significance of AM.

“People are really starting to adopt this,” said Fuller when asked how individual labs are adapting to using the new digital workflow. “I think they’re finding out that they are capable of more than they thought they were before.”

As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Pacific’s mission is to conduct research, development, engineering, and support of integrated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber, and space systems across all warfighting domains, and to rapidly prototype, conduct test and evaluation, and provide acquisition, installation, and in-service engineering support.

Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific

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