Engineer Stephen Cox has developed a way to print ‘smart parts’ with embedded sensors and RFID tags that could alter the way the U.S. Navy conducts maintenance checks aboard their ships. The combination of sensors and RFID tags allows the part itself to indicate it needs to be repaired or replaced.
Cox is a chief engineer at the Naval Information Warfare Center–Pacific in California where he previously invented another technology that involves LiDAR imaging. His new invention might solve the part-qualification and file-security problem that has plagued the field of 3D printed (replacement) parts.
The technology is still patent-pending but it is already drawing the attention of the Navy and outside experts.
How Does It Work?
The idea is to use conductive inks to create strain gauges and temperature sensors within 3D printed components like pressurized fuel tanks, hand tools, or mechanical linkages.
The embedded temperature sensors within the 3D printed part are connected to passive RFID tags that relay information to external monitoring devices. With these components, it continuously relays real-time data and performance metrics. This enables operators to easily sport abnormalities in performance and deal with them expediently, which is particularly useful if the vessel is off-shore where replacement parts can be difficult to procure quickly.
The sensors operate wirelessly and could save the maintenance crew a ton of headaches in check-ups. They allow users not only to test and monitor the equipment remotely, but also aid in repairs and replacement. Options within the sensors allow users to shut down or idle a machine while maintaining minimum capability until a repair or replacement is available.
‘Smart Parts’ For Ships
There are multiple uses of the sensors that Cox discusses within his patent. Particularly pertaining to 3D printing, the smart parts may be able to solve part-qualification concerns. This is good for additively manufactured parts, in that companies can easily compare and qualify naval equipment using such sensors, passing them through safety checks far quicker.
Another feature stated within the patent is real-time statistical process control. In this way the information enables engineers to calculate exactly when the smart part will go off-line, what errors are occurring, time to repair or restore and even the costs of repairs. In some applications, Cox has also invented a quality assurance test by printing a flexible diaphragm into the smart parts. Users can depress the diaphragm and, if functional, it audibly “pops” back.
Currently, the military and the navy are looking into further application and implementation. The smart parts could be a great way to ensure older naval equipment will last longer using new 3D printed equipment. Printed parts are helping immensely in refurbishing or replacing old equipment in many military sectors already. According to the congressional budget office, certain sea vessels are expected to run past the 4 decade mark. This means a lot of vessels will have outdated parts needing constant monitoring and evaluation. This is similar to the issue the air force ran into with older jets, which they fixed using additive manufacturing.
Featured image courtesy of Alan Antczak/Navy, retrieved via TechLink Center.