The People's Liberation Army navy has begun to adopt cutting-edge additive manufacturing technology, commonly known as 3D printing, on its ships, according to PLA Daily.
One of the transmission gears on a navy destroyer broke suddenly when the vessel was anchoring at its home port after an operation at sea in the past week. The part was repaired using a 3D printer on board the ship, the report said.
"We have benefited from the use of 3D printing technology," Ren Yalun, an officer in the ship's mechanical and electrical section, told PLA Daily.
"The 3D printer is like a miniature processing and manufacturing workshop that is able to quickly mend or produce parts－even nonstandard components."
Additive manufacturing is a process in which three-dimensional objects are made through the layering of material. The technology is advancing rapidly and is increasingly used in the manufacturing sector.
The PLA has approved the application of 3D printing technology and plans to promote it in the military's equipment support system, the newspaper cited Xu Binshi, a senior PLA expert on equipment repair, as saying.
The PLA Academy of Armored Forces Engineering, where Xu works, has developed a specialised 3D printer that can make most metal parts of an armored vehicle or tank.
It can "print" a part at a speed of up to 100 grams per second, but precision components such as gun barrels are still beyond its capability.
Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher from the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told China Daily, "As far as I know, the 3D printer is still in the trial stage for the navy.
"It has bright prospects, but whether it can be quickly promoted to all units will depend on its cost."
Navy ships carry many small replacement parts with them on voyages to repair minor damage or fix malfunctions, but they have to return to the home port or shipyard if serious problems occur, Zhang said.
In December, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp announced that its scientists had produced a special 3D printer for use by astronauts on space missions.
The machine is capable of printing optical lens brackets used in spacecraft-borne equipment, complicated components used in testing a nuclear power apparatus, impellers used in aircraft research and special-shaped gears used in automobile engines, said Wang Lianfeng, a senior engineer at the company's Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology.