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Metal 3D Printing Sets Sail

The Xerox ElemX liquid metal printer is the first metal AM machine deployed on a Naval vessel.

The Xerox ElemX liquid metal printer is the first metal AM machine deployed on a Naval vessel.

The Xerox ElemX liquid metal printer is helping the U.S. Navy address supply chain challenges. Image Courtesy of Xerox

Metal 3D printing has gotten its inaugural call for naval deployment.

The technology will first spring into action to help keep Naval vessels in top working order, an especially arduous task these days given current supply chain woes that make it difficult to track and source parts—especially specialty items with a long shelf life—in any kind of timely fashion.

The U.S. Navy is building on its partnership with Xerox Elem Additive Solutions to address the challenges and advance a long-term vision for additive manufacturing at sea. The agency is now installing an ElemX unit on the USS Essex (LHD 2), the first ever metal 3D printer to set sail on a U.S. vessel as part of a broader campaign to increase the fleet’s operational readiness. The ElemX found its way to the USS Essex in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and at-sea trials are set to commence immediately.

The goal of the partnership is to establish operational guidelines and technical feasibility studies that will help determine future applications and additional use cases for metal 3D printing at sea. A team on board the USS Essex will design and print parts on ship and provide feedback to NPS and Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific (COMNAVSURPAC). Initially, the ElemX will be deployed to print on-demand spare parts, facilitate repairs, and create low-volume production parts, officials said. With its minimal post-processing capabilities and promise of faster time-to-part-delivery, the ElemX will help the Navy fleet produce reliable replacement parts when needed, reducing its dependency somewhat on complex global supply chains.

“The military supply chain is among the most complex in the world and putting the ElemX on USS Essex means that sailors can now bypass that complexity and print parts when and where they need them,” said Tali Rosman, GM of Elem Additive, in a press release. “We are proud to continue our partnership with the Navy to help them advance their additive manufacturing capabilities and execute their long-term vision.”

The ElemX leverages Xerox’s liquid metal AM technology that uses standard aluminum wire to deposit tiny droplets on a build plate to form desired parts. Once the part is finished, the build plate is removed from the printer and positioned in a water tank where thermal expansion mechanics ensure quick release of the aluminum parts without requiring additional sintering, debinding, or other steps that are more common to alternative metal 3D printing processes.

In addition, unlike other metal 3D printing technologies, there are no hazardous metal powders with ElemX and no need for special facility modifications or personal protective equipment to operate the machine. This makes it a a simpler and safer option for metal 3D printing, Naval officials said, and standard production quality parts can be produced in hours, not days or weeks.

For more on how the ElemX can help mitigate supply chain challenges, check out this video.

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Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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