A team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Navy have created the military’s first 3D-printed submarine, an achievement that may have the potential to accelerate the defense R&D process.
The sub – called the Optionally Manned Technology Demonstrator – is a 30-foot submersible made of thermoplastic resin, and it closely resembles the covert infiltration mini-subs used by the Navy SEALs. The hulls for these subs currently take three to five months to build and about $600-800,000 each. But the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division's Disruptive Technology Laboratory (DTL) partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL) to bring down the expense: using ORNL's Big Area Additive Manufacturing facility, they printed the hull in six sections at a cost in the tens of thousands. A contractor assembled the sections into the final product. The whole process took weeks rather than months.
"We asked ourselves, 'Can we do it a different way and get different results?'" said the director of DTL, Garry Shields. "This is a collapsing of the design and manufacturing spiral at an incredible iteration rate at very low cost. The impact of this may be that we change the way we play the game."
The proof-of-concept prototype isn't ready to go into operation yet, but it has already won the team the NAVSEA Commanders Award for Innovation. The next version will be produced at ORNL and tested at Carderock in 2018, with fleet-capable prototypes scheduled to arrive in 2019.
"Our intent was to provide something so disruptive to conventional expectations that it would demand reflection and re-evaluation of our commonly held constraints about how tactically relevant platforms can be built," said Michael Wardlaw, head of maritime sensing at the Office of Naval Research and a sponsor of the project.