LCDR Mike Llenza is a Federal Executive Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He gave this speech at a recent DC-based conference on the future of Additive Manufacturing as it applies to the Naval Service.
I’m LCDR Mike Llenza, and unlike Dr. Schuette, have absolutely no background in this field except that of an operator interested in the potential of the technology on the service.
When I arrived at the Atlantic Council they had all of the new fellows sit with the program directors so we could listen to what each different center was working on and perhaps find a project or program that interested us. One of them was their Strategic Foresight Initiative and one of the things they were working on was the Global Trends 2030 report they were preparing for the new administration in conjunction with the National Intelligence Council.
Part of the report dealt with disruptive technologies, and among those was 3d printing. So having been the maintenance officer, as well as the guy in the ready room who always had the latest gadget, the topic immediately grabbed my attention. I thought it could have incredible implications, especially for the Navy and so I decided to focus on it. My time at the council has afforded me the ability to engage with leaders not just in government but industry and In fact we were fortunate enough to host a working group at the Council last November, which Dr. Schuette was kind enough to attend, where we were able to get representatives from the White House, OSD, Army, Navy and all the major players in industry, to include a few of their CEOs to talk about the future of 3D Printing and Defense. So tonight I’d like to go over some of the current applications and research going into 3D printing and a few possible future implications for our service.
I’m preaching to the choir, but one of the many things that make our service unique is our ability to forward deploy our force and sustain operations in the blue water or the littoral, hundreds of miles from a friendly shore, thousands of feet in the air or hundreds of feet beneath the sea. But like the rest of the services, we rely on a relatively intricate global supply chain. With the levels of instability currently present in many of the theaters we currently operate in, it is all too easy to imagine a scenario where a geopolitical event causes us to lose an ally or a basing point critical to sustaining our operations. Which is one of the arguments used to support sea basing. 3D Printing is in essence, an enabler for Sea Basing. Instead of relying on a large shore based footprint subject to regional instability, 3D printing has the potential to move a significant part of your logistical requirements closer to the fight.
But what is truly revolutionary about 3D printing, is what Neil Gershenfeld, from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, refers to as the ability to make things into data and data back into things. This is the capability which has the biggest impact on the Navy because 3D printing potentially allows us to shift from a physical inventory to a digital one. A Digital inventory allows you to carry the digital designs for multiple parts vice the actual physical ones, taking up memory instead of shelves, and when you couple that with the ability to print out said parts on demand at the point of use, you reduce the requirement for valuable storage space while at the same time increasing the number of parts you can make.
It’s therefore not much of a stretch to see how we could repurpose not only some of the spaces aboard surface combatants and submarines with this capability, but convert some of our Military Sealift Command fleet into printing ships, or a combination thereof, floating factories able to take orders from the battlegroup and have readily available on demand part creation capability to support the fleet.
But even if you don’t get rid of your shore-based logistical footprint, which is the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future, the technology still has an impact by allowing you to set up a distributed global production network where you can send out an e-mail with a digital scan or design for a part you need and have it created at the nearest certified printer.
Replacement parts are often the first thing that come to mind with regards to 3D printing and defense, but whole UAVs have been printed by EADS, UVA, the University of Southampton and Virginia Tech. The one VA tech created was a quadrotor completely composed of printed parts except for the motor and electronics. They started making it on a Friday and were done by Sunday and it folds up so it can be stowed in a backpack. The University of Southampton UAV had a geodesic airframe like the old Vickers bombers from WW2, which is a very robust but incredibly expensive design to manufacture. Luckily, with 3D printing, complexity is free.
UVA’s UAV flew 45 mph and was controlled by a cheap android phone which was embedded in the aircraft and allowed use of its camera while in flight for imagery. The first time they flew it they actually crashed it and destroyed the nosecone, so they just went back to the lab and printed out another one. I wish I could have done that back when I was the mo. But the eventual goal is not just to print out the parts to assemble the drone but one that flies right out of the printer. An organic ability to print out cheap replaceable drones from ships, FOBs or during disaster relief operations could be a huge enabler for our sailors and marines.
Speaking of disaster relief, the technology has applications for disaster relief as well and if you need to create a shelter, or any kind of structure on a fob or beachhead, USC has developed a system called contour crafting where 3d printing is scaled up and a 2500 sq’ home can be produced in about 20 hours. The walls are printed from a special blend of cement and the end-design has over 3 times the structural strength of ordinary construction. They were the same folks who were funded by NASA to show they could 3d print structures on the moon using lunar soil, which they did using a substitute. Coincidentally, a group using a solar powered 3d printer were able to print out glass objects in the sahara desert using the sand surrounding the machine. Which begs the question, what if we could harvest some of the minerals from the surrounding ocean to create some of these parts?
One of the other possible applications is ammunition. My Army colleague at the Atlantic Council used to be the commanding officer of Radford Ammunition Plant where among other things, they make the nitrocellulose and propellants for much of the U.S. arsenal. So when we started talking about the possibility of printing out ammunition, he explained casings would be relatively easy but it would be a non-starter unless you were able to print the energetics. So we arranged for representatives from Virginia Tech’s 3D printing labs to visit Radford and look into the possibility. They did so and have conducted several meetings since and believe it’s not only worth exploring, but the capabilities afforded by 3D printing could allow them to produce propellants with geometries that could provide better and more efficient burn rates. Although you need weapons in such large numbers that it would not be pragmatic, what if you could print some ordnance on demand to tackle stop gaps or specific targets?
Another area which is already having one of the biggest impacts is Healthcare. 3D Printing has the potential to radically change how we take care of our sailors and marines. In fact it’s already being used extensively at Walter Reed. They have a pretty robust 3D lab called the 3D Medical Applications Center where they’re using 3D Printing not only for modeling but for the creation of prosthetics and implants. They 3D scan soldiers in order to model custom prosthetics which they then print out in the lab and its allowed them to scan the skull of a soldier with cranial damage so they can in turn print out a titanium plate that fits perfectly on the first try. So this is one field where 3d Printing’s ability to make multiple items, each different than the other makes it ideal.
But what about replacing skin tissue, or organs? The field of regenerative medicine has taken advantage of 3D printing, but uses living cells instead of powdered plastics and metals. Organovo, a company out of San Diego is the first commercial producer of bio-printing machines. They’ve successfully created the thickest bio printed living tissue to date with an embedded capillary system and can re-create lung and heart tissue as well as cartilage and even bone. One of the best features of this technology is that they use the patient’s own cells, thereby eliminating the issue of transplant rejection altogether. The main customers right now are pharmaceuticals such as Pfizer who are using them to conduct human testing without actual humans, but you can see defense applications for skin or bone grafting and testing the effects of bio-terrorism agents and irritants on lung or skin. On an interesting note, although their goal is to print out entire organs, during one of our conversations, their director of research explained to me that they don’t necessarily have to re-create an organ itself but something like it that can restore a certain percentage of the disabled organ’s functionality. In fact, why not create a specialized organ which works even better than the original? This opens up opportunities not just for on site medical care where removal of the patient is not feasible or safe, but possible bio-enhancement.
Finally there is research currently being conducted into bio-printing drugs and vaccines. This has incredible implications for defense, imagine the CDC e-mailing us the blueprints for a vaccine to avert an impending pandemic or defend against a possible biological attack?
So we can print parts, drones & shelters, and perhaps some ammunition, how do we feed our sailors and Marines? A company called Modern Meadow, actually an offshoot of Organovo, based at NASA Ames and also partially funded by USDA and the NSF, is working on that. In 1932 Churchill said ”…we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” which is exactly what Modern Meadow is working on. Brewing meat by extracting muscle cells from the biopsy of an animal such as a cow or pig, allowing them to multiply to sufficient numbers, and then inserting them into cartridges to be used as bio-ink. The printer then lays down the cells that eventually develop into muscle, which can be flavored, shaped and cooked. In fact the CEO’s father and scientific co-founder did a TEDMED talk where he cooked and ate a tiny pork chop they created. Additionally, all of the requirements for this process exist aboard a carrier or a sub and all you would need to add is the machinery and the ink, which in this case is comprised of bags of powder. Currently they’re working FDA certification and are focusing a lot of their efforts on creating leather, so in the meantime (slide) maybe we can get ready room chairs with real leather covers and we can protect the Nauga-herd from further slaughter. So 3D printing, in this case bioprinting, has just shortened our logistical tail again with an organic ability to produce food on site, reducing security risks, costs and energy consumption.
Taking into account the current state of the technology and its advantages, you can see where it could potentially enhance our Naval capabilities in the future. I think the Navy is strongly poised to benefit from this technology, more so than any other service, for the same reason NASA has expressed so much interest in it. What if Apollo 13’s astronauts could have just printed out the part they needed? We both work in remote environments, have a very optimized yet fixed inventory space and are tied to long, vulnerable and at times costly supply chains which in turn drive us to become as self sustained and self-sufficient as possible. It therefore stands to reason that a capability which increases our autonomy and grants us an organic ability to produce those items which keep us in the fight as long as possible would have a huge strategic impact on the service.