In January 2021, the Department of Defense published its first-ever Additive Manufacturing Strategy to “provide a shared set of guiding principles and a framework for [additive manufacturing] technology development and transition to support modernization and Warfighter readiness” across the military.
Additive manufacturing (AM) – more commonly known as 3D printing – is the computer-controlled process of creating three-dimensional objects by “printing” material, layer upon layer, to build up an item to the finest of detail. Whether creating a child’s toy or a sophisticated machine part, it is economical and efficient, employing a minimum of resources with a minimum of labor and time.
The versatile technology has already significantly impacted industrial production as the world shifts from analog to digital technology, and is increasingly being seen across the Department of Defense (DOD) as a powerful and versatile tool providing technical advantages across a range of defense applications.
Already working on this, NPS recently established the Center for Additive Manufacturing (CAM), a campus-wide collaborative effort to coordinate research and advance 3D technology. Under the umbrella of CAM’s Naval Additive Manufacturing Enterprise 2030 (NAME 2030) initiative, NPS explores every aspect of additive technology and the possibilities it presents the Navy.
One of the most promising of these is to better allow the supply of forward-deployed forces.
A key element of NPS’ applied research in this area is the recently launched strategic collaboration between Xerox and NPS focused on AM research, which has the potential to dramatically transform the way the military supplies forward-deployed forces.
As part of a Collaborative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), NPS was the first to receive an installation of the Xerox® ElemX™ Liquid Metal Printer on the university campus in December. The new ElemX will provide NPS faculty and students hands-on exploration of new ways the technology can deliver on-demand 3D printing of metal parts and equipment from ship or shore, anytime or anywhere.
“The military supply chain is among the most complex in the world, and NPS understands first-hand the challenges manufacturers must address,” said Xerox Chief Technology Officer Naresh Shanker. “This collaboration will aid NPS in pushing adoption of 3D printing throughout the U.S. Navy, and will provide Xerox valuable information to help deliver supply chain flexibility and resiliency to future customers.
“The world is moving into an on-demand economy where you only pay for what you use, when you need it,” continued Shanker. “The ElemX can have a tremendous impact, not just for the military but also for the manufacturing world in advancing this vision. From saving on transportation, warehousing, and inventory carrying costs to reducing carbon emissions, the potential impacts on business and society are very exciting.”
With access to this latest AM technology, NPS faculty and students will use the ElemX to conduct thesis research to develop new capabilities for the Navy and Marine Corps.
“As the Department of the Navy’s applied research university, NPS combines student operational experience with education and research to deliver innovative capabilities and develop innovative leaders with the knowhow to use them,” said NPS President retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau. “This collaborative research effort with Xerox and the use of their 3D printing innovations is a great example of how NPS uniquely prepares our military students to examine novel approaches to create, make, prototype and manufacture capability wherever they are.”
“From the age of sail to the nuclear era, Sailors have been fixing things at sea so they can complete the mission,” she continued. “This partnership is about the strategic ability of the Navy to have Sailors on ships with the capability through creativity and technology to advance their operations at sea. Through collaboration, NPS and Xerox are helping build a Navy for the 21st Century.”
With approximately 250 commissioned ships distributed around the globe, the logistical demands of the Navy are enormous and require a complex web of support systems – each with their own individual requirements – to provide a steady stream of equipment and maintenance parts. A broken or missing part worth a few cents can cause thousands of dollars' worth of delays or even mission failure if sailors abroad have to wait for it to be replaced: any given request must go all the way back to the United States, often get sourced, and then flown back out to the requester.
To address these potential supply chain issues, the Navy has for more than two decades pursued AM technology as a means to get sailors the parts they need, both at shore-based facilities and at sea. Producing metal components, however, has been a tricky affair. The process has proven sensitive to humidity, vibrations and shock, and fluctuations in the power supply. It’s also dangerous: it uses metal powders which are both toxic and highly explosive. Such conditions are less than optimal for sailors at sea, let alone ashore, ultimately yielding a poor Return on Investment (ROI) in the technology. Until now, that is.
Xerox recently developed a means to print metal components without having to rely on metal powders. Their new ElemX liquid metal printer instead utilizes low-cost, off-the-shelf metal to easily, safely and cost-efficiently print metal components on demand. Operating similarly to an office ink jet printer, the ElemX melts a metal wire down and jets tiny droplets of molten metal, layer upon layer, to form metal objects.
“The great thing about the ElemX is that is uses wire instead of powders to make a part,” noted Tali Rosman, Xerox’s General Manager of 3D Printing. “With liquid metal printing, you don’t need inventory [of bulky materials] and can 3D print on demand; powder-based printers don’t lend themselves to that because of the explosion risk and all the unique requirements. Our technology doesn’t need a special room or hazmat suit to use.”
“We’re thinking about meeting needs ten years out from now, and this is the first metal printing technology that really lends itself to that long-term vision,” she added.
In order to implement that vision, however, Xerox wants to ensure that the printer is ready for prime time.
As soon as they launched their 3D innovation, the company began searching for a partner in the scientific community that could help bring their new technology to market. The printer, they realized, required feedback by actual users in order to make the leap from lab conditions to enterprise-scale use.
They found that in the Naval Postgraduate School.
“We wanted somebody in the scientific community in the front end of innovative technology that could basically pressure test our technology in the field to help us accelerate and scale our roadmaps,” Shanker explained. “We knew NPS could move the needle for us in so many ways: it has a very strong scientific community very much connected into moving advanced sciences into the field.”
“NPS is an entity that could greatly help us find ways to prioritize new use cases and very diverse cases as well as materials fairly rapidly,” he continued. “Working with a real forward-thinking entity like NPS was very attractive.”
Xerox account executives began working with the Navy to make this a reality, and within six months, a CRADA was signed.
“There was no hesitation for us to say we would like to partner with Xerox on this CRADA because we immediately saw the benefit of this technology,” recalled Garth Hobson, Chair of NPS Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department. “This is an all-around win-win situation. Not only will Xerox be learning from us what the Navy’s needs are and how to implement this technology, but it will advance our mission requirements.”
“The bottom line is that the mission of NPS is to educate Naval officers,” he added. “They’ll take this technology into the Fleet.”
The ElemX opens the door to new realms of research possibilities for NPS students and faculty across a multitude of disciplines.
“Having the ElemX at NPS provides us with unparalleled flexibility in terms of the number and variety of tests that we can do to examine this novel technology’s capabilities,” said CAM co-director Amela Sadagic. “It also provides us with the opportunity to acquire insights into this type of 3D printer’s suitability for Naval operations.”
This exploration spans a range of research activities, from microscopic investigation of different metals and alloys to cost-benefit analysis of acquisition processes, and NAME 2030 has already integrated the ElemX into graduate student curricula, theses and ongoing research projects.
The MAE department is planning a range of efforts to test the quality of 3D printed parts and identify and test specific user cases; the Center for Materials Research will provide analysis, qualification and certification of varying materials; the Computer Science department will focus on training requirements and examine the parameters associated with the technology’s diffusion and large-scale adoption; the Graduate School of Defense Management will study risk management and the diverse range of factors that influence the ROI in utilizing the technology in various operational settings; the Warfare Innovation Continuum will explore how liquid metal printing might transform military operations, from tactical employment to strategic implications.
Additionally, CAM is organizing a series of brown bag lectures to expand NPS student and faculty familiarity with the technology and the specifics of the ElemX.
“Our goal is to make sure that every student who comes to NPS has a basic understanding of the potential that AM technology brings to DOD and their future role of both the practitioners and active supporters of the innovation in their services,” Sadagic noted.
These efforts – and Xerox’s ability to reach the enterprise size and scale of the United States Navy – underscore the potential for the ElemX to reduce dependency on global supply chains for military forces abroad and at sea.
Forward units currently rely on massive, centralized supply depots – what Marines call an “Iron Mountain” – to meet their logistical needs. The inventory at these regional hubs must continuously be monitored and, even when the system functions flawlessly, replacement parts ordered might take weeks to resupply.
The Navy has perhaps the most complex range of replaceable parts out of all the services, according to Hobson, and the vast majority of these – approximately 90 percent – are made of metal. Even if an ElemX wasn’t on every ship, having the printers forward deployed would preclude the need for an immense logistics network stretching all the way to the United States and back again.
“The Fleet doesn’t have too many plastic parts, so I see this technology as key to the Navy’s long-term supply chain issues,” he said. “As far as the Navy is concerned, AM is definitely in the future.”
One of the greatest advantages of the ElemX, however, is perhaps the most intangible: the human imagination.
With access to an ElemX, sailors and Marines would have the means to improvise innovative solutions on the spot; versed in the Art of the Possible, this might mean the difference between mission success and failure, or even life and death.
“Our warfighters out there are very smart,” Hobson said. “Give them that respect and they will come up with their own unique way of using this technology out at sea, given the opportunity.”
The ability to print parts locally, rapidly and reliably would potentially alter the way the military supplies its forces dramatically. In an era of Great Power Competition, the flexibility this affords may prove an imperative: the ability to do things better, faster, safer and more cost-effectively is the lodestar of Fleet readiness.
“This is one way to bend the curve so that the DOD is not spending a thousand dollars for every dollar that a peer competitor spends,” observed retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Todd Lyons, Vice President of the NPS Alumni Association and Foundation, the non-profit organization which made the strategic collaboration with Xerox possible.
“The NPS Alumni Association and Foundation supported bringing the liquid metal printer to NPS because it will enable soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to solve their problems where they are, when problems occur,” he continued. “By donating the right digital tools and the liquid metal printer, all of a sudden we’ve helped transform not just the supply chain, but how the DoD thinks operationally about supplying war.”
For more discussion on AM, tune in to the latest episode of the NPS’ video series – Listen, Learn, Lead – with university President retired Vice Adm. Ann E. Rondeau. In the episode, AM experts Drs. Amela Sadagic and I. Emre Gunduz, as well as supply chain expert Dr. Geraldo Ferrer hold an interdisciplinary discussion focused on the future applications of AM toward needs in the Naval domain.
The Collaborative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) does not imply endorsement of Xerox or its products by the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense. © 2021 Xerox Corporation. All rights reserved. Xerox® and ElemX are trademarks of Xerox Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.