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Need a special tool to fix your aircraft carrier? Print it

VIRGINIA BEACH — Two years ago during the aircraft carrier Enterprise's final deployment, one of the ship's eight nuclear reactors had to be shut down after a cooling turbine malfunctioned.

The reactor could have been fixed quickly, but the aging carrier wasn't equipped with a tool needed to get the job done. Ordering the tool and having it delivered to the North Arabian Sea would have taken weeks. Instead, sailors in the machine shop spent several days building one from scrap metal.

In the not-so-distant future, the Navy says, problems like that will be much easier to resolve. The optimism is rooted in a technology that was mere science fiction a couple of decades ago but now promises to transform modern manufacturing: 3D printing.

Instead of forging a tool from a hunk of steel, someday sailors will likely be able to pull up a pre-engineered design template on a computer, then "print" the tool while at sea using a process known as additive manufacturing.

A glimpse of that future was on display Thursday at Dam Neck Annex in Virginia Beach, where civilian engineers, officers and young enlisted sailors gathered in a small laboratory for an event called "Print the Fleet." Inspired by the do-it-yourself "maker movement" that has spread out of Silicon Valley and across the country, the Navy event was an opportunity for sailors to daydream about how 3D printing might someday make their jobs easier.

The session opened with a primer for the uninitiated: 3D printers are essentially industrial robots that transform raw materials into usable objects by laying down successive layers of the material in liquid form. Most 3D printers today work with only a handful of materials, typically plastics and a few metals, but the technology is advancing rapidly.

In August, NASA plans to install a 3D printer on the International Space Station. Hospitals across the country are using 3D printers to build prosthetic limbs and biological materials that aid in surgery.

So how might the Navy use the technology?

The possibilities seemed endless Thursday as enlisted mechanics rattled off names of aircraft and ship parts they wished they could print on the spot instead of waiting for them to be shipped or made in-house.

A high-end 3D printer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth is already saving the Navy thousands of dollars by producing prototypes for the new Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers. Instead of traditional wood or metal mockups to test ship alterations, shipyard engineers print much cheaper polymer models — in hours rather than days or weeks.

In the short term, ships deployed at sea could soon use 3D printers to build temporary replacement parts until more sturdy manufactured parts can be shipped from shore.

"This is a game-changing technology," said Lt. Ben Kohlmann, a Navy pilot who organized the Print the Fleet program as part of his role with the Chief of Naval Operations' Rapid Innovation Cell. Kohlmann leads a group of junior officers and enlisted sailors at Norfolk Naval Station tasked with finding futuristic solutions to current problems.

Kohlmann says the Navy should open a series of do-it-yourself labs at bases across the country, where sailors can tinker with 3D printers for work and for hobby.

"We should encourage people to experiment because that's where the best ideas will come from," Kohlmann said, citing venture capitalism, in which most ideas fail, but a few lead to revolutionary change.

The experimental 3D printer at Dam Neck was humming Thursday — it sounds just like a traditional office printer — as it built small plastic models of F/A-18 Super Hornets for use in training at Oceana Naval Air Station.

Vice Adm. Philip Hart Cullom, the deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, addressed the forum via video. Cullom, who has been tasked with developing a strategy for reorganizing the Navy's industrial supply chain to incorporate 3D printing, said he could imagine the service someday having an entire rating of sailors trained to operate the machines.

"We envision a global network of advanced fabrication shops, supported by sailors with the skill sets and training to identify problems and build and make products," he said.

The admiral has already come up with a catchy nickname — albeit a bit dated for a futuristic force — for the sailors whose job will be building parts and fixing problems on the fly: "Military MacGyvers."

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