During one of the breaks at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) Conference 2023 (March 19-23), I stumbled across five or so people who I noticed had “NSWC – Carderock” on their name tags. Since the military is probably the area of 3D printing I cover most frequently, I was instantly familiar with that particular Naval Surface Warfare Center, which, like the US Navy as a whole, has been especially active in 3D printing projects over the last year.
I thought it was a long shot that I’d be able to get an interview with one of them on the fly. But fortunately, they put me in touch with another member of their team, Scott Ziv, who generously agreed to sit down with me with me during what I’m sure was one of his only free half-hours during the hectic weeklong slog that is AMUG.
As Ziv explained, the task of warfare centers like Carderock is to serve as an intermediary between the most theoretical side of a field of knowledge like AM, and the most practical side. The US government, among other institutions, determines this question of theoretical versus practical in terms of what are called Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). On a scale of 1 to 9, new technologies are assessed to be at their least mature (“1”) to most mature (“9”) stages. More or less, warfare centers take the technologies that have passed through their least mature stages and prepare them to be passed on to the areas where, if all goes well, they’ll be used in real-world conditions.
During Ziv’s time at Carderock, he’s seen the number of AM workers there more than triple, from 9 to 30. Notably, Ziv, part of the Platform Integrity Department at Carderock, is a civilian. Back in 2017, Ziv graduated from Virginia Tech and was recruited by NSWC Carderock Division, where he’s worked ever since.
Image courtesy of NASA
When I asked if that was a typical occupational trajectory for someone working for the military, Ziv clarified that it wasn’t atypical for someone working with 3D printing, in the military: “The additive industry is unique — and I’m sure you’ve seen this — you couldn’t get somebody with 10 years of experience, or at least not back when I started, because the industry hadn’t been around in earnest for that long. So pretty much everybody that you would get that would have up-to-date technical knowledge on how to run additive systems came fresh out of college. You might have people who knew powder bed fusion from a handful of companies, but there wasn’t that many people using them at the time. I think the demographics have changed pretty considerably since then, but back when I was hired that pretty much was the only way to get additive engineers.”
In fact, this specific background of civilian academic know-how being drawn into the defense sector perfectly highlights the military’s approach to AM more generally. If the military decides it needs something, it’s not going to necessarily wait around for it. If it can, it will go and get it.
“As someone once said, ‘if you can’t make it, you can’t have it.’” Ziv explained, “It’s true in warfare. It’s true in private industry. It’s true in everything, right? So being able to make sure that we have the ability to make what we need to support the sovereignty of the United States is important. It’s a matter of national security, and therefore something the government cares heavily about. …Making sure that we have the ability to make it here and make it well is the government’s problem.”
Testing of a hull at NSWC- Carderock. Image courtesy of NSWC Carderock
And not just “here,” of course, but everywhere that the military has a footprint. The main reason why I think that AM can be best understood by understanding what the military is doing, and intends to do in the future, with AM, is the concept of being able to produce anything, anywhere. Now, that concept will certainly never be anywhere close to fully realized in practice. Nevertheless, the premise that militaries are essentially operating under in developing their advanced manufacturing programs is to get as close to that impossible goal as humans conceivably can.
As Ziv succinctly put it, “When you go to war, you don’t necessarily get to pick the environment… You can try your best, but you don’t pick the land you fight on, the area you fight in, the conditions, what kind of seas you’re in, whether it’s in the air, on the ocean, or on land. You don’t pick that, so you have to be ready for anything and everything.”
That innate grasp of resilience is why I’ve gradually formed the opinion that the greatest influx of new workers in the AM sector over the next decade will come from the armed services. Ziv shares that outlook on the labor pool potential represented by service members:
“It was actually just mentioned in this workforce development talk: if you’re in the military, you typically are in for between 4 and 20 years. The benefit [once you’re out] is you have a very good work ethic, you have a very good set of skills…And a lot of those people get picked up by private industry. …So having more printers in the fleet or having more printers that active duty personnel will work with will inherently increase the pool of good operators in private industry.”
Finally, despite his knack for putting a broader philosophical spin on things, much of the ins and outs of Ziv’s day-to-day work are involved in getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of gargantuan organizations’ infinite complexities. Much of the difficulties in accelerating the US military’s adoption of AM, at this point, are simply related to the paperwork involved in approving every step of the process of getting a printer onto, for instance, a ship. And then there are the doorways:
“There are a fair amount of policy side concerns. And then, of course, there are practical ship-side concerns. The government has very unique requirements of what it works with. For example, can you even fit it in the door? Most watertight doors [on a ship] are slightly thinner than a normal commercial door, so a lot of systems don’t fit, and they’re frustratingly close!”
In such a detail-oriented industry, the need to redesign your whole platform just for one customer is clearly a serious challenge. As I’ve mentioned before, working with the government is not the right decision for every company. Nevertheless, companies that rise to that occasion can certainly give themselves a very definite edge.
I looked up, “If you can’t make it, you can’t have it,” but wasn’t able to find out who it was that coined the phrase. Like most military wisdom, I assume it to be one of those things that has just been said in one form or another since the beginning of history, like, “Armies march on their stomachs.” Whoever originally said it, the fact that a technology as new as AM has the power to revive such an ancient sentiment, is uniquely emblematic of the epochal transformation of industrialization that is about to happen.
Thanks to Scott Ziv and NSWC – Carderock for granting me the interview