Maritime 3D printing: Cost optimization, operational efficiency

3D printing has many advantages. They are faster, accurate, safer, and do not require much human effort. Of course, with every advancement comes the trade-off of costs. Though the process is expensive and often has limitations, several sectors, including maritime, defense, aviation, and healthcare, are resorting to greater applications of 3D printing.  

Kenlip Ong, CEO of Pelagus, delves into the optimality of 3D printing for both cost and operational efficiency. Pelagus, a one-stop digital manufacturing partner for the maritime and offshore industries, is a joint-venture company between Wilhelmsen and thyssenkrupp.

Please explain how 3D printing works and is adopted in the maritime and offshore industry.

3D printing is a catch-all term for a class of production methods that involves adding material layer by layer – whether it is metal or polymer. This approach is relatively recent and made possible by advances in fusing these layers together at a molecular level, whether by laser or alternative heat sources. 

Maritime and offshore adoption came as a result of the lowering of production costs, and improvements in computational engineering that put the technology within reach.

Why is 3D printing important to the maritime industry, and will its importance grow with the increasingly transforming landscape of the industry?

The maritime industry moves about 11 billion tons of cargo annually and the state of the maritime industry is fundamentally tied to the flow of global commerce and geopolitical events. In the 2022 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report, it stated in its opening chapter that it is imperative “for maritime transport to embrace digitalization and decarbonization… In an increasingly unpredictable environment, policy makers can design new forms of resilience and build more secure supply chains.”

We strongly believe in this, and view 3D printing as one of the key methods to solving the aforementioned problems. 3D printing does not manufacture a part until it is required. This can help to cut down the huge amount of spare parts inventory that is rarely used, yet needs to be carried just in case. Now, instead of physical carrying costs, it would be maintenance costs at a digital warehouse, which would be invariably much greener.

How does 3D printing address the pain points in the maritime industry through digital advancement?

We utilize the LPO framework for customer pain points.

Firstly, there is a long lead time. Traditionally-manufactured parts can take up to months to be delivered due to the vessel location and manufacturing facility. However, with on-demand manufacturing, spare parts can be fabricated near the point of need and this reduces vessel downtime. 

Secondly, it addresses poor part performance. With additive manufacturing (AM), for example, we are able to improve the part performance by changing the spare part materials to prevent corrosion. 

Lastly, the whole equipment does not need to be replaced just cause of an obsolete or legacy part. AM allows us to scan and fabricate a single part, reducing the cost needed to replace the faulty component.

What are the cost factors to consider before incorporating 3D printing into a company’s solutions?

Think of it like working out – there are multiple different machines to be used in order to target different parts of your body. Similarly, different 3D printing technologies will be utilized for different components. As such, a company would have to invest in quite a lot of physical infrastructure and acquire a lot of know-hows for each technology. 

On the flip side, there might not be adequate business justification for a specific type of 3D printer, and thus that “body part” gets neglected. How the Pelagus Platform value-adds is it connects a global network of qualified 3D printing suppliers to our customers, allowing them to access OEM, generic, and obsolete part designs. Keen insight and analysis need to be applied to relook at the entire organizational body and evaluate costs versus benefits. 

Some of the benefits include eliminated transportation costs from a shore-based parts manufacturer to the port and vessel, reduced wait times for a specialist part to be manufactured and transported to the port, and expedition in the transport of cargo. Please elaborate more on these.

For Pelagus 3D, we work towards targeting the LPO issues that end users face. Take for example, a return oil standpipe part that we had printed together with Kawasaki Heavy Industries. With AM, we were able to reduce the weight by 90 percent and this allows the end user to eliminate the need for a crane during installation.

Another example would be the pump impeller. With AM, we were able to improve the surface finishing of the product, ensuring improved part performance. Moreover, the lead time was reduced, with only a 14-day production lead time as compared to a longer traditional manufacturing lead time. 

What are some cons of adopting 3D printing?

The maritime industry is heavily regulated, and by the time a part has jumped through the hoops from a technical, economic, and safety angle of the suitability for 3D printing, there should not be any further negative points. Now is the opportune window for shipping companies to get on board with this technology as the industry landscape changes into a more demanding arc.

Photo credit: Pelagus. Kenlip Ong, CEO of Pelagus.

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