How 3D printing could change marine technology
by Matt Hodson, Operations Director, Marine Hub Cornwall
3 | May | 2018
3D printing has the potential to radically change our approach to some of the technical challenges in marine technology and shipbuilding. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the technology over recent years, but arguably it hasn’t yet had the same impact in the marine industry as it has had in other industries such as automotive and aerospace. However, that situation could be set to change over the next five years.
One area of marine technology that has already been affected by 3D printing is that of prototype modelling. It has allowed for the fast production of one-off designs and a more cost-effective way of producing complex prototypes. With 3D printing it also becomes cheaper to produce multiple prototypes. All this helps to identify any errors in the design process much earlier than would otherwise be possible. For projects that are commercially sensitive, using 3D printing can also assist with protecting confidentiality, as a fewer number of people are exposed to the design while it is in development.
Since the technology gathered pace in at the turn of the century, 3D printers have been getting more efficient and cheaper to produce, while also increasing in the range of materials that they can handle. The industry has also learned more about how to achieve the best results. For example, materials are built up in layers, which often show as ‘stairs’ in the final item. Today, much more is known about the ideal finishing processes needed to give a smoother, cleaner result.
The growing excitement about 3D printing is understandable when you consider some of its benefits for marine technology and shipbuilding. These include:
• The ability to produce custom-designed parts and components very cost-effectively.
• The opportunity to produce parts with less materials.
• The fact that no tooling may be required – or considerably less tooling than with conventional processes.
• The ability to use different types of materials, lighter weight materials and more complex materials, such as advanced composites. Reducing the overall weight of vessels brings great benefits in terms of fuel efficiency and running costs.
• Being able to produce highly complex shapes with no major cost penalty. This can include shapes with built in cavities. Experts refer to this as “complexity for free.”
• The capability to change and adapt designs more quickly than would otherwise be possible.
• The possibility of creating spare parts by 3D scanning the existing part and then printing its replacement.
• The chance to create parts using advanced or novel materials, such as carbon fibre or specialist ceramics.
As this movement gathers pace, it looks likely to disrupt many of the existing practices and supply chains within the marine industry. Here are just three examples
• For shipbuilders, being able to produce parts locally at their shipyards would result in faster turnaround, fewer transport costs, and avoidance of import duties. This could lead to a major reduction in their operational expenditure.
• For shipping operators, 3D printing could offer the opportunity to produce or repair parts or components while vessels are at sea, by having a 3D printing facility on board. This would avoid the need for lengthy unscheduled delays at port. This aspect has attracted considerable interest from the military, where maintaining operational readiness is a high priority.
• For builders of superyachts, being able to provide unique, one-off designs is highly prized by their clients. With 3D printing, it becomes much more cost-effective to produce custom-made internal finishes to the specific design requirements of the customer.
As has been mentioned, to date 3D printing in marine has mainly been used for smaller components and prototype models. However, on 30th November 2017, the world’s first 3D printed ship’s propeller received class approval following sea trials. The WAAMpeller is made up of 298 layers of 3D printed nickel aluminium bronze alloy. This is an important indicator of how fast the technology is progressing.
The marine technology businesses in Cornwall are right at the forefront of the latest thinking in marine technology. 3D printing will allow them to create completely new ways of addressing some of the technical challenges faced by the marine industry. The designs skills and technical expertise located within Cornwall are bound to have a big influence on how this technology is applied in the years ahead.