Navy Partners with Xerox to 3D Print Metal Parts


At the beginning of the month, the United States Naval Postgraduate School, a grad institution for Naval officers and others, announced a research collaboration with global print and digital document corporation Xerox.

“From the age of sail to the nuclear era, sailors have been fixing things at sea so they can complete the mission,” said NPS President, Ann Rondeau. “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.”

The Collaborative Research and Development Agreement involves the installation of Xerox’s ElemX Liquid Metal 3D printer—a new name given for the Vader Systems at IMTS that was acquired by Xerox in 2019—on the university’s campus to research the potential of 3D printed aluminum components and how additive manufacturing can develop new capabilities for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Additionally, the team will research how the technology could be utilized at sea, as well as examine novel approaches to designing, creating, and prototyping with the ElemX 3D printer.

“The military supply chain is among the most complex in the world, and NPS understands first-hand the challenges manufacturers must address,” said Naresh Shanker, Xerox Chief Technology Officer. “This collaboration will aid NPS in pushing adoption of 3D printing throughout the US Navy and will provide Xerox valuable information to help deliver supply chain flexibility and resiliency to future customers.”

Measuring 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall, the 3D Xerox printer can reach internal temperatures of more than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and can produce bespoke metal components using aluminum wire as its base material.

“Aluminum is very resistant to oxidation and corrosion,” said I. Emre Gunduz, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the Naval Postgraduate School. “In maritime environments, that’s a very significant factor.”

Starting with a spool of aluminum wire, Tali Rosman, vice president and general manager for 3D printing at Xerox, explains that to create an aluminum part, the wire is melted and while in liquid form, droplets are jetted one drop at a time in order to create layers and build the desired part.

Currently, the printer can create parts that have a maximum volume of roughly 12 inches by 12 inches by 15 inches, with completion times varying based on the part’s size. For decent-sized parts, the machine has been reported to complete printing efforts between three and four hours.

Rosman further explained to Popular Science that while traditionally 3D printers require powders, they pose an explosion risk and breathing hazards, suggesting that aluminum wire is not only a better, but safer fit for a Naval ship’s tight environments.

However, even with the material selected, Gunduz adds that NPS researchers will still have to observe other considerations such as vibrations and shaking before the technology could be installed aboard a vessel.

If all goes well, retired US Marine Corps Colonel and Vice President of the NPS Alumni Association and Foundation, Todd Lyons predicts that the technology will reduce dependency on global supply chains and provide cost benefits over traditional manufacturing.

“The NPS Alumni Association and Foundation supported bringing the ElemX 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 said. “By providing the right digital tools and the liquid metal printer, all of a sudden we’ve helped to transform not just the supply chain, but how the Department of Defense thinks operationally about supplying war.”

The CRADA underway between Xerox and NPS is just another step in adopting 3D printing technologies in the U.S. Military.

Other 3D Printing Efforts

In November 2019, 3D printing firm 3D Systems (Rock Hill, South Carolina) announced that it had won a contract to develop a corrosion performance design guide for direct metal printing of nickel alloys. Ultimately, the guide may help reduce maintenance costs in the shipbuilding industry.

3D Systems, which will be working in collaboration with Newport News Shipbuilding, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and staff from University of Akron, won the contract from America Makes and the United States Department of Defense.

In developing the design guide, 3D Systems will work with other entities to gather data and apply what’s learned to the production of parts built via direct metal printing. The company’s technology lends itself to shipbuilding and munition fabrication due to low oxygen content and part manufacturing quality control.

This work was brought about in order to help address the $8.5 billion yearly total that stems from corrosion-specific maintenance. Research will focus on identifying what causes corrosion in naval sea system platforms and high-speed weapons that are composed of nickel alloys. Addiitionally, the companies will supply the testing process with four different surface finishes, and four different heat treatments.

As for the evaluation process, which is composed of 240 tests, researchers will take a look at stress corrosion cracking, evaluating crevice and galvanic corrosion modes. Variables also include differences in surface finish and post-build annealing time to account for different surface conditions.

The appeal of additive manufacturing is a reduction in production and delivery times, as well as better corrosion resistance.

Prior to the awarded contract, U.S. Marine Corps announced a successful, first-known 3D concrete printing operation involving a 3-inch print nozzle and new continuous mixer in September.

The printing exercise was conducted at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois, and involved Marines from the Marine Corps Systems Command, 7th Engineer Support Battalion and engineers from the USACE.

According to Megan Kreiger, project lead for the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures—or ACES—team at CERL, the team was able to print larger structures faster and will less waste, due to the increased the size of the nozzle.

As reported in the press release, the 3D printing method shows improved thermal energy performance by 10 times and more than doubles the strength of the structure. Additional data also shows a reduction in cost by 40%, a reduction in concrete materials by 44%, reduces construction time by 50% and reduces manpower by 50%.

Next, the teams envision completing 3D printing projects with a 4-inch nozzle with the continuous mixer. Additionally, the 7th ESB Marines plan to build a conventional bunker similar to the 3D-printed version and compare them in demolitions testing.

Combat engineers also predict a similar system being deployed to a forward operating base that would be operational within a few days after arrival. The system would be able to print small structures quickly and then be transported to entry control points and operation posts.


Tagged categories: 3D printing; 3D Printing; Metals; NA; North America; Research and development; Technology; Tools & Equipment; U.S. Army; U.S. Navy

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