Hitting Print: 3D Printing Exhibit at Puget Sound Navy Museum

By: Megan Churchwell, Curator, Puget Sound Navy Museum

The Puget Sound Navy Museum’s newest exhibit, Hitting Print: Navy On Board With 3D Printing, explores the world of 3D printing, the next frontier of manufacturing.

The U.S. Navy uses 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to produce everything from tiny plastic clips to large scale proof of concepts of submarine hulls. Sailors print spare parts aboard ships, use 3D printing to test prototypes, and even manufacture custom drones.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process, which means that it involves building up raw materials in layers. This contrasts with traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, which begins with a block of raw material. The excess is removed via machining, carving, or other techniques to reveal the object. New additive manufacturing technologies create less waste and allow engineers to create innovative designs that would not be possible to produce using traditional techniques.

3D printing is already in use in many different industries. Dentists can 3D-print replacement teeth; chefs create artistic cuisine using printers modified to print in chocolate or pasta; jewelers use metallic 3D printers for intricate custom designs. In naval shipyards, this technology is used to print custom tools, templates, and guides designed for specialized shipyard tasks.

This technology is useful not just for innovative new creations, but also for mundane replacement pieces. Many U.S. Navy ships contain older parts that are no longer in production. Replacing them using traditional manufacturing could require setting up an entire production line. Other pieces cannot be replaced individually without replacing a much larger assembly, often at increased cost. By 3D printing replacements, the Navy can save both time and money.

Aboard USS John C Stennis (CVN 74), sailors are testing the operation of 3D printers at sea. The Navy hopes that someday, ships will need to carry fewer spare parts thanks to this technology. A printer installed aboard a warship provides a limited selection of replacement parts on demand, making the ship more self-sufficient.

The Navy’s underwater archaeologists are even using this technology. This 3D-printed model of USS Arizona, which sank during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, reflects how the ship appears today. It was created using precise laser, sonar, and photographic measurements, and can be used to track changes like corrosion and coral growth. Check out this model in person in Hitting Print!

3D printing might sound like science fiction, but it has the potential to reshape how we live, work, and play. The U.S. Navy envisions a future with 3D printers deployed on warships and at shore-based commands, enabling the delivery of parts and equipment with record speed.

From jewelry to medical devices to components for aviators’ helmets, the possibilities are endless. This exhibit features more than forty 3D-printed items on display. Check out the many applications for this new technology – and watch a 3D printer in action — in Hitting Print! The exhibit opened on August 31, 2019 and will remain on view for two years. To learn more, visit http://history.navy.mil/psnm.