Tele-manufacturing Goes to Sea: Bringing Remote and Automated Processes onto Deployed Vessels

By Connie LaMorte, Howard Marotto, and Lindsey Lindamood

In August 2022, EWI was selected by NCMS to attend the inaugural Repair Technology Engagement Exercise (REPTX) to demonstrate our technologies aboard the Navy’s Self-Defense Test Ship (SDTS). This event, held at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, CA, was sponsored by the NAVSEA Technology Office and provided an opportunity to showcase technologies that can solve fleet expeditionary maintenance and battle-related support requirements. EWI was able to demonstrate and evaluate the viability and efficacy of two newly developed technologies, cold spray and tele-NDE for corrosion repair and assessment — both at port and at sea on the SDTS (ex-US Paul F. Foster, DD 964). The REPTX event is a tool to help the Navy evaluate prospective technologies that may expand its ability to perform expeditionary maintenance and sustainment.

Corrosion on ships causes immense damage and is a constant challenge. It can degrade structural integrity, lead to parts failure, and decrease material readiness. Furthermore, corrosion remediation requires countless hours of additional labor, costing millions of dollars and diverting sailors from more important tasks. Cold spray technology deployed on a ship in service can mitigate or stop localized corrosion. During REPTX, EWI demonstrated that a sailor can employ a portable cold spray system to treat corrosion with very little training and potentially prevent it from affecting the treated area again.

Cold spray has been an established solution to treat localized corrosion and provide dimensional restoration on ships for many years. It has been employed at the Navy shipyards in applications such as non-sealing or non-bearing surface restoration, sealing or bearing surface restoration, and dimension repair in non-load bearing areas. Some commercial entities have considered using cold spray for propeller repair as well.

While adopting cold spray processes can save the Navy millions of dollars and increase material readiness, the ability to assess the damage, determine the repair required, and evaluate the quality of the repair are also important to saving time and money. However, this evaluation is a complex task that requires an engineer’s insight, and is not currently possible on ships while deployed. EWI has developed a remote technology that can do this evaluation on a ship underway and demonstrated this during REPTX.

Tele-NDE is a system that can conduct nondestructive evaluation (NDE) of surfaces from a distance through automated technology. Remote control of repair and inspection processes allows an operator to be onshore and communicate with process and inspection equipment located on the ship. Alternatively, the operator can be in one location on the ship and the operating equipment can be in another.

Both remote visual monitoring and automated NDE have been used in commercial applications for some time. Tele-robotics has enabled doctors to perform remote surgery successfully in medicine for over a decade. Over the past two years, EWI has been active in developing tele-robotic systems for welding, gouging and inspection using both phased array ultrasonic testing and eddy current.   A combined cold spray and tele-NDE solution—a technological first—was demonstrated on actual corrosion-damaged areas on the SDTS in-port, with access to shore power and connectivity to validate the solution in that regime. At-sea demonstrations later validated that the solution could also be employed while underway.

Navy leadership has stated the need for dynamic visualization and inspection methods to “see” themselves and the world surrounding them. Tele-inspection technology can help meet that goal by providing real-time visualization of a surface and subsurface features to a remote operator. During REPTX, EWI demonstrated that eddy current could be used to assess the results of a cold-spray repair of a corroded area on or off the ship.

The Navy also reports the need to perform maintenance operations underway and in forward locations to improve ships material condition and build battle damage repair competencies. EWI’s cold spray technology can complete this type of repair as demonstrated on the SDTS. For our cold spray solution, only one sailor would be required to move, operate, and maintain the system. Meanwhile, EWI’s tele-NDE method allows the NDE technician the ability to remotely access the machine for moving the probe into a desired inspection location and interpreting the results. Pairing our cold spray solution with our tele- NDE solution ensures that the quality of work performed by the sailor can be quickly assessed, allowing for adjustments, corrections, and assurance.

Finally, the Navy is challenged by “the tyranny of distance” for supply chains, particularly in contested environments. Forward manufacturing hubs, including additive manufacturing, can enable greater ship readiness in theatre. Tele-presence inspection methods, like those developed by EWI and demonstrated during REPTX could be used for inspection and remote assessment of additively manufactured parts, further building confidence in forward-manufactured components and ensuring quality at the point of need.

Tele-NDE and cold spray can be deployed individually or in coordination, for repair or inspection applications in all industries. EWI continues to develop solutions in tele-manufacturing for our customers and continues to push the advancement of cold spray into industry.

Authors Connie LaMorte, Principal Engineer, Howard “Howie” Marotto, Business Director for AM, and Lindsey Lindamood, Applications Engineer, work for EWI.

Note: Any reference to specific equipment and/or materials is for informational purposes only. Any reference made to a specific product does not constitute or imply an endorsement by EWI of the product or its producer or provider.