A 3D-printed navy?

May 23, 2013

The Northrop Grumman-built Triton unmanned aircraft system completed its first flight on May 22, 2013. Could a future version be 3D-printed? (Credit: Northrop Grumman by Bob Brown)

Instead a carrying spare parts, space-constrained U.S. Navy ships in the future might carry 3-D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary, according to the Armed Forces Journal,

“Perhaps closer at hand is a distributed global production network in which sailors and Marines send an email with a digital scan or design for a part they need and have it created at the nearest certified printer. Thinking bigger, the fleet might convert some Military Sealift Command ships into floating factories that can take print-on-demand orders from the battlegroup.”

But it could go beyond replacement parts. Several university labs and at least one defense contractor have turned out unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) comprised entirely of printed parts, excepting the motor and electronics, the journal reports.

A 3D-printed aircraft?

A Virginia Tech lab printed an aircraft that could be folded up and stored in a backpack, and a UAV controlled by a relatively cheap Android phone whose camera was used to shoot aerial imagery. Designed for a top speed of 45 mph, it crashed on its first flight. The students just went back to the lab and printed out a replacement nose cone. The eventual goal is a drone that flies right out of the printer with electronics and motive power already in place.

Taking 3D-printed guns a step further, how about printed ammunition? The Virginia Tech researchers believe that 3-D printing might be able to produce propellants with geometries that provide better and more efficient burn rates.

What about replacement parts for aircraft? Boeing has 22,000 printed parts flying on various jets and Lockheed has printed parts flying on the F-35, when it’s flying, the journal says.

The dark side

However, once a digital design is in the ether, anyone with a printer capable of producing the part can re-create it. This has implications not just for corporate intellectual property but national security. “U.S. companies and government agencies have lost control of terabytes of documents and data. What happens when the files being stolen include not just the design specifications of a top-secret weapon but the digital recipes that make it trivial to produce?

“Or imagine attacks along a different vector: a hand-held computed tomography scanner peers through containers and casings, assimilates a weapon’s inner workings, and automatically generates the digital blueprints to print it.

“Or take it a step further. If your enemy can steal and create files for proprietary designs, what’s to stop him from hacking into your system and modifying them? Suddenly, your printed UAVs are mysteriously collapsing upon launch. Three-dimensional printing’s emerging ability to integrate multiple materials also raises the specter of a new generation of improvised explosive devices. Imagine a fire hydrant that looks and works exactly like a fire hydrant, until a detonator touches off the explosives layered within.”