Story by MCCS Jeffrey Pierce, NCG 2 Public Affairs Office
CAMP SHELBY, Miss. – In early August, Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133 headed north to Camp Shelby, Miss. for their three-week field training exercise (FTX).
As NMCB-133 had done during previous exercises, they set up camp and dug in. This time the battalion went to the field with a renewed focus on one of their core competencies; contingency construction. However, they were also trying something new and foreign to most in the battalion.
Along with the usual construction equipment, tools and weapons, several 3-D printers also made the journey north. The goal was to test the proof of concept of using 3-D printers in the field to produce needed supplies and repair parts.
The process is known as additive manufacturing describes the technologies that build 3-D objects by adding layer-upon-layer of material, whether the material is plastic, metal, concrete, etc. The process involves the use of a computer and special CAD software, which can relay messages to the printer so it “prints” in the desired shape.
According to Lt. Michael Lundy, a reservist attached to the Fleet Readiness and Logistics staff for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, helped NMCB-133 facilitate the use of several 3-D printers in the field, the possibilities of this technology are endless.
“We printed more than 30 different parts and identified 50 others so far that need to be drawn up by Engineering Aids on the computer. Once these drawings are complete we link the computer to the printer,” Lundy said. “The upside to this process is with the proper database they can print repair parts as opposed to waiting 30 to 90 days for new parts to come in. The only constraint to this technology for Seabees is their imagination.”
Ensign Femi Ibitoye, NMCB-133’s Alfa Team Commander, worked in architectural design prior to his service in the Navy has experience useful for this technology.
“I have experience drawing plans in 3-D and in prototyping using specific programs. The iterative process used in architecture is very similar to the process used in Additive Manufacturing,” Ibitoye said.
Chief Construction Mechanic Gail Best was witness to the true potential of this technology.
“We were able to print a bushing for the adjustable shock absorber used on our medium tactical vehicle replacement tractors and wreckers. We cannot order this particular part separately, so if it fails we have to replace the entire shock absorber,” Best said. “The shock absorbers cost $10K each, however, we were able to print a new bushing here in the field for about $1 and install it. We had three vehicles go down due to a failure of a minor plastic part. We were able to print them, install them, and get the vehicles back up and running.”
According to Cmdr. Joe Symmes, 22 Naval Construction Regiment’s supply officer, in the not-too-distant future 3-D printing could give Seabees the ability to print needed supplies and repair parts on the battlefield.
“Additive manufacturing capabilities are an important component to future Seabee readiness. Imagine being able to carry a warehouse in a box that has the capability to print assets across almost all classes of supply,” Symmes said. “Now imagine that ‘virtual inventory’ has the ability to adapt to changing scenarios on the battlefield with minimal to no communications across the electromagnetic spectrum. For a logistician these concepts were the stuff of sci-fi films just a few years ago. Now they are available in commercial, off-the-shelf products that are accessible to households across America.”