One of the primary duties of a Sailor in the Machinery Repairman rating (MR) is the fabrication of replacement parts. It’s a job that is likely to be theirs for quite some time despite the widespread advances of digital equipment across a broad spectrum of Naval discipline. As long as there are moving parts on machinery and other types of equipment, there will eventually also be broken parts on those machines and pieces of equipment—and sometimes there is no option to simply wait for the part to arrive through traditional replenishment methods.

But the process of Additive Manufacturing, commonly called “3D printing,” could drastically change that the Navy’s Machinery Repairmen to their jobs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the life of Machinery Repairmen was drastically improved with the introduction of Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines for milling, lathing, and routing materials into parts. This CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) system exponentially speeded up the process of manufacturing parts because once the dimensions of a part were recorded and input to a controller, the machine could work much faster than any Sailor could using a manually controlled lathe or router.

What CNC did not do, however, was give Sailors any way to easily put their ingenuity and experience to work in cases where drawings and specifications were not readily available. Because Additive Manufacturing makes producing prototypes a speedy, relatively simple task, Machinery Repairmen can more easily try out new ideas and solutions.

Last November (2015), the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, working with Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman, installed a mini Fabrication Laboratory aboard the ship. Called a “Fab Lab” for short, the system consists of two Additive Manufacturing (3d) printers and a CNC mill. The latter uses traditional subtractive manufacturing to create circuit boards, while the 3D printers build parts layer by layer using special polymers.

Before giving the Fab Lab a trial run—the first time such a system has been used afloat in the Navy—the Sailors were given a crash course in 3D rending software, electronic components, and the basics of soldering. The goal is give Machine Repairmen and other Sailors involved in machinery maintenance and repair an idea of what the Fab Lab’s capabilities are so they can use their creativity when solving repair problems. Because materials used in 3D printers are fairly inexpensive, Sailors can try innovative solutions without having to worry too much about waste.


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