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By Theresa Bradley
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Rocco Portoghese overseeing a 3D printing job on the Objet 500 Connex 2 in the Rapid Prototype Design and Fabrication Lab.

Engineers and designers at Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) are finding solutions to difficult training challenges with 3D printing. In Orlando, NAWCTSD’s Rapid Prototype Design and Fabrication Lab – part of the Advanced Simulation, Visual and Software Systems Division – is equipped with sophisticated 3D printers that produce training devices quicker and more cost effectively than traditional methods. In some cases it’s creating parts that were impossible to produce in the past.

Rocco Portoghese, Senior Research and Development Engineer with the Rapid Prototype Design and Fabrication Lab, said: “3D printing has opened the door to imagination and creativity. In just a half-hour, over lunch, I printed a device enclosure that we couldn’t have made in our machine shop. This process offers greater flexibility and complexity of design.”

3D printing is also reducing cost and speeding development of simulated pieces of tactical gear for trainers. Simulators have traditionally used bodies of warfare equipment and filled them with simulation-specific gear. These shells, based on the actual bodies, are generally expensive and have long production lead times. The cost of a previously integrated laser-target-designator body is $18,000, and it takes almost six months to procure. But that same item, developed on a 3D printer, will cost $200 for materials and take about four hours to print in plastic. Although not as sturdy as the real body, it is suitable for training.

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A demonstration weaponry system containing components used in training and printed on the Objet 500 Connex 2 at the Rapid Protoype Design and Fabrication Lab.

3D printers operate similarly to traditional printers but use a variety of materials, such as plastics, elastomers, titanium, steel and carbon-fiber composite. The printing process differs with various machines. Two of the labs machines use polyjet technology. Print jets lay down a single layer of material that is cured by high-intensity ultraviolet lights. Each subsequent layer is laid upon the last, until the final piece is completed.

The third of the lab’s printers uses a process called fused deposition modeling – a thin filament of thermoplastic resin is melted by a single-point print head, extruded, placed on a build surface, and cooled to a solid form. The print head then draws out a cross-section of the part to complete a single layer, and the process is repeated until the part is built.

NAWCTSD added 3D printing to their Orlando-based Rapid Prototype Design and Fabrication Lab in 2012. Today, it produces a wide range of plastics in varying hardness and colors with two polyjet and one fused-deposition-modeling printer. These range in cost from $20,000 to $300,000. The most sophisticated prints up to 140 materials by combining polymers in a finished size up to 19.3’ x 15.4’ x 7.9’.
This high-tech Objet500 Connex2 by Stratasys was used to produce components of a weaponry system called Modular Advanced Training-Marksmanship Proficiency (MAT-MP).

Portoghese said: “MAT-MP is packed with electronics, neatly and snugly in a very small package. It has high-def video, a 1GHz computer and wireless capability. The printed components’ lighter weight, smaller size and increased design complexity allow us to pack all those features in one device that can be attached to any live-fire weapon and used in training.”

While video records the trainee’s line of sight, sensors monitor trigger and buttstock pressure, and tilt of the weapon. This Information is recorded and delivered to the trainer who then gives instantaneous feedback on very precise adjustments.

MAT-MP is currently being tested by the Marines, Army and law enforcement.

3D printing technology is still emerging, and its applications in training aren’t fully understood throughout the military. Portoghese acknowledges that many in the Navy don’t completely understand its capabilities.

He said: “There are a lot of challenges we can help resolve with this technology. We can often do it at a much lower cost and in a very short timeframe compared to traditional manufacturing and prototype methods. I can produce an item and tell clients. This is what it will look like. After the design phase, there is no ambiguity about what will be delivered.”

Team members at the lab see a tremendous benefit to giving Warfighters direct access to 3D printers. On ships, for example, replacement parts could be printed on-demand. Instead of storing and hauling hundreds of parts, most of which will never be needed, the ship could store a digital inventory of part designs and print as needed. If a part didn’t exist in inventory, it could be created by a designer located either onboard or remotely.

The Rapid Prototype Design and Fabrication Lab serves all branches and through NAWCTSD is a member of Team Orlando – a coalition of Central Florida-based military, federal government, industry and academic institutions who have united around a common individual mission: to improve human performance through the use of modeling, simulation and training technologies. Through collaboration, cooperation and partnerships, Team Orlando maximizes organic capabilities, training solutions and mission readiness, while minimizing costs and developmental/delivery timelines.

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