3D printing is an umbrella term that covers a range of processes with broadly similar outcomes, a material is formed into a finished object by building up layer after layer using a small industrial robot.
The most common technology for 3D printing is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and works by passing a filament of thermoplastic through a heated nozzle. The melted plastic is extruded in a bead onto a bed and cools to form a solid. The nozzle moves back and forth laying the bead which fuses to previous layers, creating a slice of the finished object. Once the layer is complete, the bed moves down and the next layer is put down on top and the process repeats. Another method involves using lasers to cure powdered materials, forming layers of solid plastic out of powder layer by layer.
The 3D printers themselves can range from the size of a desktop printer up to industrial cabinet units, with capabilities varying from single plastic materials to multiple metal alloys.
The technology has massive implication across a number of industries with its use in creating custom items quickly and without the need for expensive tooling.
For the maritime market 3D printing could in future be used to reduce the cost and environmental impact associated with supplying spares to vessels. The expense of keeping warehouses full of spare parts and the cost involved in moving items around the world by air freight to where they’re needed could be reduced.
Maersk Tankers have undertaken a 3D printing experiment on board one of its vessels, exploring the idea of printing its own parts on board a vessel rather than transporting a part to the ship.
"The main objective of the experiment is to explore the technology vis-a-vis the supply chain challenges a shipping company are challenged with versus more stationary targets. A side-benefit would be to accelerate the shifting of 3D printer makers’ and suppliers’ focus from only design purposes or private consumer market to the marine spare part industry," Peter Steen Olesen, head of supply chain tankers, group procurement at Maersk told Seatrade Global.
Recently a plastic fan for an electric motor was printed, a part that often breaks up and can be difficult to source to the point that the company has previously had to buy an entire motor just for the fan it needed. With a 3D printer onboard, such parts could be created on demand within a matter of hours and installed after some basic finishing.
"We printed the fanblade as an example what can be done – concepts like this tend to feel more tangible when you have an actual product you can actually touch and feel," Olesen continued.
"The fanblade was just an example, the best way of visualising 3D printing's potential is to actually to look around the environment you are in and see how many plastic parts you see. The idea for this project actually came up when we were looking for a plastic box with specific measurements for a GPS tracker."
Instead of a store room full of parts, the future could well be a printer with a stock of feed material ready to be turned into whichever object is needed, when it's needed. The designs for the 3D models are stored as digital files which can either be held locally on a hard drive, or even sent to the ship over its communications systems.
The days of printing off metals equipment spares is some way off, however "at this stage the vibrations on board will prevent us from experimenting with metal printers hence will be focusing on the plastic printers in the initial phases," Olesen stated.
The technology faces challenges in ensuring the quality of printed parts and in the licensing that will be necessary to reproduce items designed by engine manufacturers, but the Maersk experiment shows that there is a will form the industry to explore the applications of what has been called "a second industrial revolution".
We might have to hold off a while yet until our home replicators are creating any object we desire at our whim, but the ability to create small plastic objects at sea could well be just around the corner.