Coast Guard Academy Professor Uses 3-D Printer on Arctic Icebreaker

The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY (WAGB - 20) is United States' newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. (Coast Guard photo)
The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY (WAGB - 20) is United States' newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. (Coast Guard photo)

NEW LONDON -- In the back corner of Ron Adrezin's office a 3-D printer is hard at work. A constant, rhythmic whirring meant that the printer was turning out, slowly but surely, a plastic, custom-made shoe insert.

Adrezin, a mechanical engineering professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, used the same printer in the Arctic on board the Cutter Healy, an icebreaker that goes out on research and scientific missions.

He spent about three weeks on board the Healy in July as part of a scientific mission led by the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London that was looking at the service's future role in the Arctic.

Adrezin's job on Healy was to see how useful it would be to have a 3-D printer on board, and to see if he could help out on various projects by creating parts.

"One of the goals was to run the printer as much as possible," he said.

A few days after leaving Nome, Alaska, the onboard dishwasher, which Adrezin said does about 70 loads of dishes a day, broke. Those on board had to start using paper products, which were in limited supply.

Using the 3-D printer,"We basically made the model, coated it with silicon, added the other parts to it," and got the dishwasher going again.

"It was really just a float for the dishwasher so it wouldn't overfill," Adrezin said while sitting in his office Thursday.

The 3-D printer, which belongs to the academy, uses a material called PLA, a low-end thermoplastic, which is relatively inexpensive to use.

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The item required is designed in a computer-aided design program before it's sent to the printer, which builds the item layer by layer.

The part produced for the dishwasher was one of between 20 to 50 items, depending on how you want to count them, that were printed during Adrezin's roughly three-week stay onboard the Healy.

"Once we fixed the dishwasher, projects started coming in very, very fast," Adrezin said.

The items were as diverse in size as they were in use, such as:

-- a case for a GoPro video camera attached to an Aerostat balloon, a large balloon tethered to the ship that was used to provide radar surveillance and take pictures, or

-- shoe inserts for a crew member "whose feet were killing him," Adrezin said. The crew member wouldn't have been able get inserts until sometime in October when the Healy returns to Seattle.

Some of the items printed were morale-related, like plastic challenge coins with the picture of a polar bear and the words "Healy 1501 USCGA RDC."

The printer used on board the Healy, a MakerBot 5th generation machine that costs about $2,800, was donated to the academy by the Coast Guard Alumni Association.

The academy started using 3-D printers in 2008, Adrezin said, when he arrived at the academy. The academy now has several 3-D printers that use different materials to produce three-dimensional objects.

"If I'm fortunate enough to go back again, now that we have multiple small machines, my goal would be to bring multiple small machines, because there was a wait for the machine," Adrezin said.

Once the people on board realized the printer's capabilities, he said, "it was always running," even up until 10 p.m. the day before Adrezin got off the ship.

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