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3D printing in shipping

The untapped potential additive manufacturing

3D printing is already revolutionizing the automotive and aerospace industries by accelerating innovation at lower costs. Shipping, however, has been slower to embrace the technology. Is the sector missing opportunities as a result?

As a traditional and heavily regulated industry, shipping has often been slower to adopt innovations than other sectors. This would also seem to be the case with 3D printing. While additive manufacturing is already being used by car manufacturers and aerospace companies, shipping is lagging behind. However, it seems the maritime industry is slowly starting to embrace the trend.

Adding value from design to finishing

Additive manufacturing could have many benefits for the maritime industry. As 3D printers become increasingly affordable, it is becoming more realistic that vessels and ports could install the necessary equipment.  They could quickly and simply print basic components, like screws and bearings, as needed. However, there are numerous limitations at present, including the size and material of the components that can be printed on board. In addition to printing parts, rapid repairs of worn parts or new wear-resistant surface coatings are possible thanks to new cold spray technology. This technique is known as “3D painting” and has already been used in the aviation industry.

What’s more, additive manufacturing could accelerate innovation in shipping. With 3D printing technology, component manufacturers and suppliers can produce prototypes faster and much cheaper than with conventional methods. It also allows for weight reductions of up to 80 percent. To ensure that 3D printed parts have the same level of quality that their traditional counterparts have, organizations such as DNV GL have published guidelines for additive manufacturing.

Interest and awareness on the rise

This year, for the first time, the SMM maritime trade fair hosted a special exhibition on 3D printing. At the Maritime 3D Printing Show Area, there were live demonstrations of additive manufacturing processes and presentations on the benefits of 3D printing. The new show was well-received by visitors, who came from various areas of shipping, including shipyards and component manufacturing.

Another sign of 3D printing’s growing prevalence in shipping can be seen at Europe’s largest port. In late 2016, the Port of Rotterdam opened RAMLAB (Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing LAB), which is the first 3D printing field lab specifically developed for shipping companies and seaports. Its aim is to provide spare parts that “meet or exceed the end user’s quality requirements at a competitive price”. So far, the project has been a success. In November 2017, the lab unveiled the world’s first class-approved ship’s propeller produced using 3D printing. If these recent developments are anything to go by, the shipping industry could look very different in the next five to ten years.