PANAMA CITY, Fla. (NNS) -- Engineering Technician Charles Self is beginning fiscal year 2014 having procured a new Additive Manufacturing (AM) 3D printer to fabricate parts and assemblies in his Rapid Prototyping Laboratory at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD).
"This rapid prototyping, or AM, is enabling one machine to do the work of multiple personnel, operating multiple machine tools, to fabricate prototypes and components running unattended and fully-automated," said Self.
Self said his shop purchased an AM 3D printer in late October 2013 so his fabrication facility could operate with the increased efficiencies and capabilities offered by AM's rapidly-evolving technology.
"By using this 3D printer, I can produce complex parts, some for end use in Mine Countermeasures systems. Some are under development by our engineers and others are prototype models to illustrate how larger systems will look once finished for evaluation by the Navy's senior leadership," said Self. "Parts made with 3D printing are done in a fraction of the time it would take if traditional manufacturing methods were used."
Tony Bond, head of the Test and Evaluation and Prototype Fabrication Division, further defined AM's technological advantages over the more traditional subtractive processes of machining.
"Traditional prototype manufacturing is a subtractive process," Bond said. "After a part is designed, it is created by starting with a block of material and removing unneeded pieces by machining or cutting away until you have your part completed. This typically requires multiple personnel and multiple machine tools."
"Modern rapid prototyping/manufacturing uses an additive process, so parts are created by starting with a computer profile of the part, inputting that into a 3D printing machine, and then the 3D printer adds material one layer at a time until it is completed," said Bond.
According to Self and Bond, there are many efficiencies gained by having purchased the 3D printer as an additional shop asset.
"An obvious efficiency gained by using 3D printing is the savings in the time it takes to fabricate a part. For instance, most engineers need prototypes to test their designs. With our 3D printer, we can print these in a matter of days instead of weeks, which is often the case when using traditional subtractive-manufacturing," said Self.
Bond explained the additional time required when using subtractive manufacturing.
"The more intricate the design of a part, then the more steps will be required when producing it on a traditional shop floor. Whereas, with the AM process - or by using the 3D printer - the machine is adding layer by layer of material, taking direction directly from a computer file that has all the part's designed features specified. So, it's only creating material where it needs to be," Bond said. "This enables us to eliminate all those time consuming processes associated with traditional subtractive manufacturing."
Although 3D printing has advanced enough to make complex machine parts, including some machine components that have moving parts within parts, Self and Bond say it still has a way to go before replacing traditional subtractive manufacturing altogether.
"To be clear, 3D printing is not going to replace all conventional methods," Self said. "There will still be projects where concepts are already proven and traditional manufacturing will be more cost effective. How we fabricate prototypes, parts, and components will be determined by the engineer's specific requirements."
Self said 3D printing technology has advanced such that it is now being used in several niche manufacturing applications like hearing aids, dental restorations, orthopedic implants and parts needed for the aircraft industry.
"Another significant advantage this brings to our facility is that 3D printing enables us to make individual research and development, test and evaluation parts on demand," said Self.
Bond said this particular capability should prove extremely cost effective for the Navy in the near future.
"As this technology improves, especially by finding more materials that continue to make our components stronger, the ability to make parts on demand should eventually help the Navy reduce long-term inventory storage costs," said Bond. "Another potential savings passed on to the taxpayer."
NSWC PCD provides innovative, technical solutions to complex problems, specifically in the areas of littoral and expeditionary warfare.
For more news from Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division, visit www.navy.mil/local/NSWC/.