High-tech defense 3-D printing technology opens up new opportunities for area contractor SAIC

SAIC is giant defense contractor has brought new jobs to the Charleston area, mostly hiring veterans located at 5617 North Rhett Ave.in North Charleston.

Science Applications International Corp. in North Charleston is among the nation’s first companies to use 3-D printing technology to help the U.S. military save money and retrofit Gulf War-era equipment that otherwise would be obsolete and irreplaceable.

“The Marine Corps was saying, ‘We need these vehicles for our Marines to protect them’ but the government couldn’t spend any money on new vehicles because of budget cuts,” said SAIC spokeswoman Lauren Presti. “So this is a creative solution that the Marine Corps and industry came up with to get the vehicles working properly.”

Otherwise, Presti said, millions of dollars worth of military vehicles would have been scrapped.

SAIC last month was awarded a contract by the military to upgrade 10 amphibious assault vehicles to serve as prototypes for a program that eventually could retrofit 392 AAVs by, among other things, strengthening the underside of the vehicles against roadside bombs. The total value of the contract — called the AAV survivability upgrade program — will be $194 million if the military exercises all options over a five-year period.

The McLean, Va.-based defense contractor was able to beat out BAE Systems, the original vehicle manufacturer, because SAIC can procure all the AAV parts independently — and at a cheaper cost — than its competitor, which builds the parts itself.

Most of the work will be done at SAIC’s North Charleston campus, which has led to an employment boom.

SAIC has hired 220 workers for the site over the past year — bringing its total at the site to about 1,200 — and is continuing to hire at the rate of 20 people per month. About half of the employees working on the AAV project are military veterans.

One of the key advantages SAIC has over competitors is its investment in 3-D printing technology.

Tony Moraco, the company’s CEO, and sector President Doug Wagoner were among company officials who recently visited the North Charleston site to get a first-hand look at the technology, which, among other uses, can make prototype parts for the vehicles. Many of the new parts are stronger, lighter and more efficient than the ones they are replacing.

“Literally, there are things you can make with this technology that you could never ever make before,” Wagoner said. “It really opens up your mind about different ways to solve problems.”

Workers digitally scan each AAV into a computer program that then can replicate individual parts to be produced by a 3-D printer. The machine at SAIC prints the prototype parts in plastic and those parts then are sent to a supplier to be duplicated in metal. That has cut weeks out of the production schedule, because SAIC no longer has to wait on third-party vendors to create the prototypes.

The technology also is helping SAIC to improve the safety of the military vehicles. Testing has shown that the hull of the vehicles, once the SAIC work has been completed, can deflect a mine blast without having an impact on the interior area where the Marines sit.

Once retrofitting is completed, the vehicles will be tested in the Cooper River and at a 187-acre site near Ridgeland before they are delivered to the military.

Although SAIC’s work is being done for the Marine Corps, the technology can be used by other branches of the military, and SAIC is hoping to win additional defense contracts in coming years.

“We’ve got a long-term, sustained and incremental growth over the years that will all be centered out of here,” Moraco said of the North Charleston facility.

“Right now, we’ve got a core set of folks that’ll gradually ramp up to hit production cycles, and parallel we’ve got multiple other programs with similar capabilities that just complement that workforce,” he said. “So the technicians and the skills they develop (in the AAV program) are then transferable to all the other programs.”

Moraco said during a conference call with analysts last week that he thinks defense spending cuts are coming to an end, which could lead to more business for SAIC.

“I think we’ve seen the bottom of the general cycle,” Moraco said. “We do expect there will be some activity around sequestration relief to a degree, I don’t think anybody’s expecting a full repeal of sequestration, but they’re working around it relative to legislation. I think we’re going to be fairly stable. It looks like we’re reaching a stable platform on budgets.”

The publicly traded company last week reported sales of $3.89 billion in fiscal 2014, a 6 percent decline from the previous year. Its profit last year was $141 million.

In addition to its military work, SAIC can use its 3-D printing technology to engineer and manufacture parts for private businesses.

The Fortus 900-MC printer — at a retail price of about $400,000 — can make parts as large as 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep by 3 feet tall and isn’t bound by traditional tooling or configuration limitations.

Depending on the volume of the part, it can take a couple of hours to a couple of days to print a part. The printer can make multiple parts at one time and is networked to SAIC’s other locations, so everyone in the company will have access to it.

“We are now engineering designs that were physically impossible to make with yesterday’s technology,” said Matt Peterson, a solution architect/engineer for SAIC. “The technology has evolved so much that we can now make end-use parts.”

While the focus has been on the AAV program, SAIC also can design and manufacture parts for private industry. For example, French commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus has used 3-D printing to produce an engine nacelle brac-ket for its A-320 model that is half the weight but twice the strength of the original part.

Peterson said SAIC is looking to bring the same efficiencies to local companies.

“This kind of technology provides a further gap between us and our competition,” Moraco said. “It’s a wide-open field of what we can do from now on.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_