A unique on-demand manufacturing division of North Charleston-based Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic — formerly SPAWAR — has expanded its capabilities to rapidly create complicated, obsolete and unique prototypes for defense-related projects that support warfighters.
The department has created oddly shaped brackets and rack mounts for military vehicles, reverse-engineered outdated equipment and handled thousands of other requests.
The 3,000-square-foot on-demand manufacturing lab has 15 3-D printers — including one that 3-D prints in stainless streel — and an advanced manufacturing-water jet that can cut titanium up to four inches thick in just minutes. The department hosted media on Oct. 12 to showcase its capabilities.
Created five years ago, NIWC’s on-demand manufacturing division has six full-time employees providing solutions for NIWC’s approximately 5,000 employees who provide support to naval, joint and national warfighters.
“There are hundreds of projects going on (internally), and if (employees) need to prototype, they can come to us internally in what we call our service center and in just hours we can support the project. It might be something simple, it might be something that takes a lot longer,” said Max Dissington, an electrical engineer in the department. “We might have a picture of something (they need), a design for something. They share information with us and our engineers are often doing (conceptual) drawing and design.”
Before acquiring the water jet a year-and-a-half ago, the department handled requests for 1,000 parts or prototypes a year, Dissington said. After adding the water jet, the department had 3,000 parts and prototype requests. Over the past five years, the department has created tens of thousands of parts, prototypes and conceptual designs.
“The water jet double or tripled orders with the faster turnaround time and (pieces) are made exactly to spec and we can produce a lot more,” he said. “Requests have definitely been increasing with word-of-mouth people realizing we have this in-house.”
Requests span from creating custom parts, laser label engraving, circuit enclosures, metal bracket outfitting, retrofitting, reverse-engineering, metal cutting and more. The department has even gotten patents for items it created.
Aaron Ross, deputy senior competency manager for the 4.7 Production Quality and Manufacturing Competency, said the best part is that the technology allows for precise measuring and testing in the lab, often the same day it’s created. If a part or protype doesn’t fit exactly, it can be sent back to the department for tweaks and additional testing with no time lost.
“Our biggest role is trying to prototype and get technology to our warfighters faster. This cuts down a significant amount of time,” Ross said.
The department doesn’t fulfill large-scale orders; rather it creates prototypes or several dozen parts. For larger orders, it shares its prototype design with larger-scale manufacturers.
“Our bread and butter is low rate production prototype application,” Ross said. “If someone needs 40-60 of something, at a point it doesn’t make sense for our printers to make that much, so if it needs mass produced, we do a little batch and test it and then it can go to a contractor (to produce).”
The department often can find solutions for a fraction of the cost of ordering new products and often bypasses potential supply chain issues for ordering new products.
“Obsolescence is a big issue,” Ross said. “Ships, submarines that are 30-40 years old, the original equipment manufacturer goes out of business, or they don’t make something anymore … for example, an original submarine depth gauge that they don’t make anymore, we were able to (reverse engineer) and simply reproduce.”
Dissington said other warfare centers around the country have similar capabilities. As an in-house service center, the department can get parts and prototypes created without the need for an additional government contract.
“We’re not dealing with procurement specialists; employees can send us an email,” Dissington said. “It’s a really fast turnaround for the warfighter to make the prototype, put it in a vehicle and get it out to production.”
Successful projects included:
- Creating accurate cutouts in 40 sheets of foam for ruggedized military cases. Machine laser cutting significantly reduced time and increased quality compared to cutting foam by hand.
- Outfitting existing military audio headsets to add a push-to-talk function. The center designed and printed unique housing for the push-to-talk switch along with appropriate cables, then assembled and tested it at the center. A 3-D CAD model was developed to encase the audio components and an onyx filament used to ensure durability. Using the center for the project eliminated the need to purchase equipment and prevented waste, and saved $8,000 by eliminating the need to purchase new audio headsets.
- Quickly addressing a need for personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The department printed and assembled 1,444 face masks and 110 face shields in six weeks for NIWC employees.
- Supporting projects in military vehicle integration, vehicle battery tactical vehicles and handling IT network installations in vehicles.
Employees in the on-demand department are mechanical, manufacturing, chemical and electrical engineers.
“Most of the people on the team are recent college graduates and 3-D printing is in the curriculum now so most come out of school knowing how to use these machines,” Dissington said, although he added that specialized electronic technician positions are harder to fill.
In addition to the advanced technology, there is also a master machinist in its machine shop, which includes traditional manufacturing machines, like drill presses, belt sanders and bandsaws for part finishing and modifications.
Ross said the department is looking into adding coatings and plating capabilities in the future. The division now has the capacity and technology to expand its requests for unique and custom parts beyond the NIWC community to support other companies actively working on government projects.
“We want to work closer with industry,” Ross said.
The department gets the word out through companywide internal spotlights, and every Friday, NIWC employees can dial in on a zoom call to see the department’s capabilities and example parts.
“One of the biggest concerns when you develop new things is how far do you want to push the edge,” said Capt. Nicole Nigro, commander of NIWC. “Having this capability in-house and working on it internally allows us to be innovative, to make sure we stay on the cutting edge and allow us to take a few more risks. We decided five years ago to look at on-demand manufacturing and now we are at the point where we can do it and we are ready to provide this service across the command and continue to grow.”