Hype or new business model?

Press Review

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This article was published in Edition 3-4/2020 of Baltic Transport Journal.

Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has been around for a while, at least conceptually. Invented in 1980 by Chuck Hull, it is a manufacturing process whereby precisely dosed materials (plastics, concrete, synthetic resins, metal, etc.) are built up, layer-by-layer, using a computer to drive the machinery. In comparison to how things were traditionally produced, additive manufacturing is faster, cheaper, and generates less waste. With recent leaps in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, how we design concepts for printing is also resulting in products that are lighter, stronger, and more efficient. Finally, and probably the most potential to impact the maritime industry, 3D printing allows for individual, on-demand production of highly unique goods.

Pair the benefits with the considerable hype that exists around 3D printing, and it begs the question – is it all media puffery or maybe indeed a new business model for maritime? As a matter of fact, we at INFORM believe 3D printing is the latter for ports and terminals to consider, along with other developments such as software as a service or big data-based decision-making, to name a few.

To answer whether 3D printing is something more than just a hype, we started with the trusted Gartner “hype curve.” The first thing to note is that 3D printing, as a technological concept, is no longer on their general hype curve; in fact, the last time it appeared there was in 2015. The most recent curve from 2018 shows many of the supporting technologies (software, scanners, printers, etc.) have nicely progressed up the “slope of enlightenment.” This helps to explain why many 3D applications have gone from hype to workable across the healthcare, aerospace, defence, manufacturing, and supply chain industries, with the same destined to take place within retail. It is our belief that the last two will have the most significant impact on the maritime industry.

From spare parts to entire vessels

Digging into the uses of 3D printing in the maritime supply chain, we’ve found that almost all the cases are focused on the production of spare parts, with some smaller exceptions around rapid prototyping of equipment and some manufacturing-side 3D printing. In short, while 3D printing in the supply chain area is further along than retail, the applications within maritime specifically are still quite limited.

That said, we had the opportunity to tour the Port of Rotterdam’s Innovation Quarter in November 2019, as part of the Smart Digital Ports of the Future Conference, and what struck us the most was the sheer quantity of 3D printing start-ups. One, in particular, was RAMLAB, who had successfully printed the first marine propeller using a robotic welding arm “printing” in metal. This has allowed the start-up to move into the refinement and scale-up phases. While there’s still some work to do, they’ve shown that they can reduce the time it takes to produce nearly any metal spare part, on premises, from a matter of weeks to a matter of days; traditional manufacturing can take up to eight weeks to produce a propeller, whereas RAMLAB estimates they can complete the printing as quickly as nine days.

Rotterdam isn’t the only place that 3D printing innovation is happening. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, among others, is innovating in this space. DNV GL has already engaged in research for MPA Singapore as regards the printing of metal equipment for shippers. Further still, Singapore has succeeded in building a 3D printing plant alongside PSA at their Pasir Panjang Terminal.

Many arguments abound regarding the impact such developments will have on the broader spare parts industry and the flow-on impacts to ports. Many argue that 3D printing will result in a paradigm shift whereby current spare part manufacturers and patent holders licence CAD designs to ports/shippers who can then have them printed where – and when – they are needed, including offshore. The US Navy is trialling the use of 3D printers on-board their vessels at sea. While the applications are still very limited (again, think spare parts), they are making early progress, and the ball is rolling, so to speak.

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