Making Navy SEALs More Combat Ready with Composites

It’s amazing that many products we now take for granted are birthed from military applications. A wide range of things – from sunglasses to duct tape – weren’t available until the military had a need for them. The same might be said for the watercraft consumers will be purchasing in the future.

Numerous reports say the U.S. Navy is working on a composite submarine hull that can be 3D printed in under a month. Engineers expect that the process, once perfected, will have the Navy SEALs printing their own submarines on site, as needed. Such a program would make them far more nimble in combat zones. And if what engineers are saying is correct, they would also spend significantly less money to build their subs.

Build It for the Military

What could the military’s use for carbon fiber today mean to shipbuilders tomorrow? To understand that, let’s look at two other products we’re all used to. We’ll start with sunglasses.

Sunglasses were not widely used in the U.S. prior to the early 19th century. When they did come into being, they were limited mainly to Hollywood celebrities looking to hide their identities in public. The average consumer wasn’t buying sunglasses because they were too expensive.

In the years leading up to World War II, the military approached Bausch & Lomb and asked them to solve a problem: the goggles their pilots were using provided adequate protection against wind and debris, but they did little to block the sun. The military wanted something new.

Bausch & Lomb came up with the first pair of aviator sunglasses. Those aviators were an instant hit in the postwar years, motivating other eyewear manufacturers to start making their own. Sunglasses are as common today as any consumer product.

The second product is duct tape. It came about during World War II as a result of ammunition cases getting wet. Military brass went to Johnson & Johnson and asked them to come up with a material that would seal ammunition cases and keep the water out. It wasn’t long before duct tape became an all-purpose utility product with uses that went far beyond keeping ammunition dry.

Carbon Fiber Submarines

Fast-forward to 2019 and we have a situation in which the military is looking for a faster and more efficient way to build small submarines for Navy SEALs. We are not talking full-scale submarines with crews in the dozens. We’re talking about small, 30-foot submersibles just large enough to ferry SEALs to and from the shore.

SEAL submarines currently cost some $800,000 to manufacture. Each one requires up to five months to build. But thanks to advanced 3D printing technology, engineers have been able to create a new carbon fiber submarine hull in under a month and at a cost of just $60,000.

This is same 3D printing technology that is being used to create other items for military use. The point is that the military is working on perfecting this technology so that it can be used in the field. The idea is to be able to manufacture what they need on site rather than having to build it in factories and then ship it to combat zones.

Rock West composites, a Utah company that deals in carbon fiber and other composite materials, sees a great future in 3D printing. They say it could eventually lead to drastic price reductions along with more single-piece construction. If they are correct, much of what we know about composite boats in the future may trace its roots back to what the military is doing right now.