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Why the Pentagon’s Use of Additive Manufacturing is ‘Not Quite There Yet’

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro tours the Navy's Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence facility.

Recently on a table at Sea-Air-Space, the U.S. Navy’s largest annual trade show, were three metal parts. These were no ordinary metal widgets, but metal AM parts built with 3D printers and delivered in less than a year, ready to go on ships. Earlier in April, the Navy finished a 45-day review of its shipbuilding programs to assess delays caused by the COVID pandemic. It found many, including key vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines, were far behind schedule due to a lack of workers and a fragile supply chain.

Enter metal AM as a solution. The Navy says work at its Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Virginia is crucial to its plans for building submarines. Sailors on select ships are already using the equipment to build parts they need at sea.

However, the Navy is cautious about the technology. They have identified three challenges:

  • Getting more companies under contract. In March 2023, a shortcut procurement tool known as “an other” transaction authority, eight vendors signed contracts within six months, and then parts — including those on the display table — arrived in about nine months. Eight vendors is a start, but it’s not enough.
  • Simplifying the Pentagon purchasing process.  The Defense Department can move quickly to buy parts, but the department is still learning how to specify them.
  • Testing the parts once they’re acquired. Everything the Navy procures for a ship must undergo testing in the field.
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