After a slow start, 3D printing is now on the cusp of solving the dilemma of storing spare parts that might never be needed
Spare parts at the push of a button? It could be closer than you think. In one of the most promising moves in additive manufacturing (AM) – the industrial-scale equivalent of 3D printing – a Port Authority of Singapore-led consortium, including 10 big shipping groups, is moving ahead on a project that aims to make the port a hub for spare parts.
Along with classification society DNV GL and other partners, the consortium is drawing up a list of commonly ordered parts that can be designed and additive-manufactured on site by 3D technology before being distributed to the waiting vessel, wherever it may be.
The consortium’s hopes are high for a breakthrough that has yet to get off the ground in the shipping industry. “This technology can not only help reduce the cost of producing spare parts for vessels, but also radically reinvent production and logistics, including using completely new and more suitable materials,” predicts the chairman of the Singapore Shipping Association’s technical committee, Steen Brodsgaard Lund.
As the cost of AM-manufactured parts continues to fall relative to conventional methods, the technology promises to make spares for shipping more readily available – and at much lower costs – and thus solve what has long been a capital-intensive headache for the industry.
Until now, points out DNV GL’s regional manager for maritime in the Asia Pacific, Cristina Saenz de Santa Maria, the availability of marine parts has involved high inventory costs for spares that are sitting in warehouses and may never be used, while steadily becoming obsolete. “Additive manufacturing holds great opportunities for the maritime industry,” she says.
Costs of storage should also fall, notes DNV GL, in a study entitled Can ‘printed’ parts make oil and gas operations smarter and greener? That is because AM is a version of just-in-time manufacturing. “The potential efficiency gains include shorter lead times for sourcing parts and less need for storage, as digital design files replace physical stock,” the report explains.
Thus, Singapore could be on the right track in its ambition to become an AM hub. “The making of equipment and components could shift away from centralised manufacturing [and] move instead to locations exactly or close to where the products will be used, such as oil platforms,” says the study.
Earlier studies agree with that prediction. A Port of Rotterdam-led report released in 2016 entitled Pilot project 3D printing of marine spares, notes: “AM shows potential to overcome transport and import/export-related costs by local production possibilities.”
Late to the game
For a variety of reasons the maritime industry has arrived late to the game as regards AM printing. Serious interest in the process in maritime began about four years ago, long after it had been enthusiastically embraced by the aerospace and automotive industries, among others.
In one of the first experiments with the technology, a 27-strong consortium of companies, headed by the Netherlands-based InnovationQuarters and the Port of Rotterdam, began by identifying which parts might be suitable for AM production. The parties began with 30 commonly used parts and got down to about four, all of which were made in metal. Although they were never meant to function as working parts, but to help understand the process, they were duly tested to determine if they could be manufactured with the integrity and profitability of traditional methods.
The main result – a metal propeller – was presented at an AM printing conference in Rotterdam in early 2016. The conclusion was that the propeller “met most of the criteria from the perspective of product design and supply chain.” The project also worked on components such as valve seats, spacer rings and hinges, but with mixed results.
Also in 2015, Singapore established an ‘innovation cluster’ devoted to additive manufacturing, although not necessarily for the maritime industry. And in 2017, classification group DNV GL published the first guidelines for the use of the technology in the maritime sector.
Netherlands-based 3D printing group Oceanz is in no doubt of the long-term viability of the technology. “It saves time in product development because prototypes are available sooner for testing,” chief executive 3D printing, Erik van der Garde, explains. “A functional prototype goes through all iteration stages in two or three weeks. And 3D-printed protypes also help recognise at an early stage whether a design may cause problems in production.”
Bespoke equipment can also be developed more easily. “By printing parts directly, you can even create unique products without [incurring] extremely high costs such as for moulds,” he adds. “These can be adjusted to the specific wishes of the customer.”
The potential is already observable on smaller craft and wind-assisted ships – “sailmaking and yacht building can use this technology even more widely,” says Mr van der Garde.
In fact, many of the latest wind- and motor-driven yachts have become test beds for AM-manufactured products, including the aerofoiled catamarans deployed in the America’s Cup. These high-speed craft rely on 3D printing to quickly explore the speed potential of different hull shapes and other vital parts, a trend that the maritime industry has only lately noticed.
The requirements of yachts and ships are fundamentally different though, says Wartsila’s research team leader Pasi Puukko, who points out that lightness is important in aerospace or yacht racing but not necessarily in a big vessel. “Thus new types of drivers need to be found in order to make this technology reasonable in the marine sector,” he explained in mid-2018, just as interest in the technology components was emerging.
One of these drivers, he said, is the potential for the production of components – ‘smart solutions’ – that work better than existing ones, as yacht-racing has found where some hard-worked components such as pulleys and blocks are many times stronger than those made of metal.
Another promising smart solution, notes Mr Puukko, is the placing of sensors in a 3D-printed metal structure that delivers information about its working state, offering insights into what is known as condition-based maintenance. “This fits very well in applications where conditions are harsh, since sensing elements and wiring are embedded inside the component,” he explains.
Wartsila started experimenting with 3D printing more than a decade ago, first using plastic and now moving on to metal. “We are now starting our journey with 3D metal printing of spare parts,” says strategic purchasing manager Rosario Smmonte. “The first 3D-printed materials are in production and we will soon deliver them to the market.”
As the technology of AM printing makes rapid advances, the potential for the maritime industry rises almost in direct proportion. Despite rejecting about half of the original 30 considered parts as unsuitable, the Port of Rotterdam project reported: “New materials and larger, faster metal AM machines are being developed which might lead to new possibilities sooner rather than later.”
However, while Wartsila is already producing 3D-printed fuel injection components, the 3D-printed four-stroke engine is probably some way off.