Logistics and Printing

Logistical issues should put an end to Secretary of The Navy, Ray Mabus’ dangerous obsession of burdening the Navy with bio-fuels.

An area in which Secretary Mabus could devote some valuable resources is the development of printing.

Printing could alleviate critical logistic issues concerning spare parts.

Spare parts are a big issue, costing billions and impairing readiness.

All 285 navy ships, as well as those in the Military Sea Lift Command, carry spare parts, such as shafts for fuel pumps, or gaskets. Not only do these spares represent a guess as to what may be needed, they also take up valuable space and add weight to a ship where the ship’s center of gravity is always of concern. Spare parts also cost a great deal, and tie up money that could be put to better use.

Often as not, the part needed to effect a repair is not on board. Today, this requires obtaining the part from another nearby ship, obtaining it from a depot in the United States or from somewhere else in the World. These involve delay and cost, while leaving the ship at reduced readiness.

3D printing can produce many of these parts. If each ship were to have a 3D printer on-board, together with the powdered or liquid printer materials in easy-to-store packages, the ship would be able to make many of the parts it might need, especially in an emergency. If the necessary software wasn’t on board for a particular part, the ship could have the software sent to it electronically.

An individual ship has hundreds of thousands of parts, most with low failure rates. The probability is that the needed spare won’t be on-board. It’s possible that there may be only a few spares for a unique part located anywhere in the world, and a ship with a 3D printer could create the spare without taking the time or incurring the cost of trying to locate and transport the part to the ship in need.

In addition, a design upgrade could be accomplished by making the newly designed part on-board, rather than waiting for the part to be produced in the United States and then shipped to ships around the world.

There is also the potential to design parts that take less space and weight, and that are simpler to install and use. Quoting from a USNI Proceedings1 article, [3D printing can] “radically change ship construction, making designs that might not be possible using conventional techniques.”

Intricate pipes and ductwork could be made using 3D printing. And, ships at sea, in far flung waters, could make replacements for these components using the 3D printer on-board.

Boeing already uses air-ducts made from 3D printing2 in its aircraft.

3D Printed model of LEMV made by Christopher Dears
3D Printed model of Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) made by Christopher Dears at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Superimposed on sky background

While this picture is of a hollow model, metal parts and tools are already being made using 3D printing3.

Admittedly 3D printing is in the early stages of development, but no less early than the development of bio-fuels.

  • Bio-fuels exacerbate logistics, while 3D printing simplifies logistics.
  • Bio-fuels detract from readiness, while 3D printing improves readiness.
  • Bio-fuels add to cost, while 3D printing reduces costs.
  • Bio-fuels haven’t any benefits, other than cutting CO2 or possibly using less foreign oil, while 3D printing opens the door to new creative solutions to ship design.

Where should Secretary Mabus use the Navy’s valuable resources: To promote bio-fuels or develop 3D printing?

As an individual who served as both an Engineering and Damage Control Officer in the Navy, I vote for 3D printing.



  1. Print Me a Cruiser! USNI Proceedings, April, 2013.
  2. From Economist magazine, 2012
  3.  3D printing company, Z-Corp video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jQ-aWFYT_SU#!


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