An Interview with Hunter Smith: Additive Manufacturing in the US Navy







Hunter Smith graduated from Clemson with a degree in engineering in 2017. He entered the job market at a time of tremendous opportunity. With over ten years of experience in additive manufacturing, including courses in high school and his senior design project at Clemson University, Hunter was quickly established as an insightful voice in the NIWC Atlantic and the Department of Defense. 

Hunter Smith started working with the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic in June 2017. He began as their General Design Engineer, was promoted to the Additive Manufacturing Lab Lead, and is now the Engineering Manager for the On-Demand Manufacturing (ODM) Lab. 

We sat down with Hunter to see how his expertise in additive manufacturing allowed him to get established so quickly and how it’s transformed production in his 4 years.

We are excited Hunter is joining us as a featured speaker at the DOD event on October 21. Register for this event here! 

Working with the Department of the Navy

In his department, Hunter works with additive, subtractive, and other advanced manufacturing techniques. Hunter and his team support the Department of the Navy through prototyping solutions, Technical Data Package (TDP) development, Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP), and more. 

At NIWC Atlantic, Hunter’s department focuses on the Navy’s communications equipment through implementation, design control, and installation of the radios, satellites, and other equipment. Warfighters can use this communication equipment to talk to one another on ships and submarines, or vehicles.

Changes in Manufacturing Usage

NIWC Atlantic uses 3D printing to create structural parts, not just in one project but also across larger platforms. As recently as a few years ago, it was a novel idea to think that a command with roots heavily invested in installation and integration would be fabricating auxiliary infrastructure equipment in-house. Additive manufacturing changed that quicker than anyone expected. 

When Hunter joined the team at NIWC Atlantic in 2017, they primarily had individual printers, pieces, and projects to create training aids. Over the past four years, Hunter and his colleagues have come together to create the ODM lab, producing thousands of parts a year for more than three dozen different projects at once. This transition from isolated printing to an additive mindset within the command showcases additive manufacturing capabilities and changes the thought processes on some of the design work. 

For example, some of the Navy’s communications infrastructure includes legacy equipment that relies on end-of-life systems or OEMs that have gone out of business. Additive manufacturing gives the ODM Lab team the ability to design cost-, time-, and material-efficient improvements to systems that had been stagnant for decades.

Advanced Manufacturing: Addition and Subtraction

NIWC Atlantic’s ODM lab specializes in advanced manufacturing, including in-house solutions for both additive and subtractive (traditional) approaches. This sets the lab apart because as many commands have labs for these types of manufacturing, NIWC Atlantic developed a unique approach to integrating all types of advanced manufacturing techniques. NIWC Atlantic began with a primary focus on additive manufacturing, but soon recognized the growing market for rapid fabrication capabilities in the metal spaces. 

To illustrate, NIWC Atlantic deals with a lot of server rack components that need new faceplates or enclosures from time to time. These enclosures had been manufactured in 3rd party shops because the Navy values its relationship with existing suppliers, and they’ve shown little inclination to build a full-scale traditional fabrication shop for this kind of work. However, when emergency situations arise, they depend on technology for quick turnaround solutions. When there is a problem out in the field, and a system needs a part to come home safely, timing is critical. Instead of a 12-month lead time, the Navy can have the part printed in just a couple of days and shipped to the fleet in need. 

Previously, when rack components came in with fabrication needs, the process would have had a sheet metal piece cut somewhere in town, then shipped elsewhere to get engraving, and shipped back to the command to be tested for implementation. Now, NIWC Atlantic can 3D print the enclosure and test it in-house. If modifications need to be made, they can happen almost immediately, and then they can use the laser tools to engrave and etch the enclosure before sending it out to the fleet. Handling this process in-house fosters iterative design. 

Normal contracting can take weeks. If any issues arise, even being a half cm off in width, the time is lost, and it could take another several weeks to get the correct part. By utilizing the technology NIWC Atlantic has for rapid fabrication, iterations can happen a lot faster, saving time and money before the mass production element is even introduced.

The Future of Additive Manufacturing in the Navy

We are in the age of Industry 4.0, the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” defined by the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices and distributive manufacturing through modern smart technology. Through this, NIWC Atlantic is looking for the best ways to decrease lead time and manufacturing parts in the most efficient locations possible. 

For example, while NIWC Atlantic has setups for printing across the United States, there are still times when a part needs to be printed somewhere halfway across the world. These instances pose the question, “is there a better location to execute that fabrication tactic?” This led NIWC Atlantic to look at utilizing the different additive manufacturing sites around the world, including those that would offer cross-service collaboration, in the interest of leveraging technology that would get these correct parts and pieces to the warfighters in the most efficient way possible.

NIWC as an Exemplar for How Additive Manufacturing is Used in the DOD

Hunter will be speaking during our Department of Defense 3D Printing Seminar on October 21, 2021. He will present the broad vision of how the Department of the Navy uses additive manufacturing, including specific use cases that support this vision. 

During his presentation, you will hear about form-factor prototypes, fully functional end-use parts, hybrid joining and utilization of additive, subtractive, and advanced manufacturing in singular pieces, and other unique solutions that have turned into success stories for NIWC and the Department of the Navy.

Interested in this event? Sign up for our Department of Defense 3D Printing Seminar today!