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Will 3D printing save the shipping industry?

Since the beginning of the year, Green Ship of the Future had been exploring the application of 3D printing, in the maritime industry and found numerous opportunities where the technology could potentially be used to save the shipping sector.

It’s not necessarily about utilising the printer to create whole new ships, which could threaten to replace manufacturers and suppliers altogether; but the technology could be adopted by traditional producers, who might actually benefit the most when adapting to new technological advances early on.

“3D print is not just another machine by the assembly line, but rather a technology with the ability to change our business models and current supply chain”, the report by Green Ship of the Future states.

The report has outlined a multitude of applications for 3D printing, like innovation of new products through rapid prototyping and improvement of already existing product designs. It also gives seafarers the opportunity to repair or reproduce obsolete parts on location. Long standing suppliers would have cause to be concerned over this capability as traditionally ship-owners and operators would have sent this business their way.

Anne Katrine Bjerregaard, Head of Secretariat at Green Ship of the Future

Anne Katrine Bjerregaard, Head of Secretariat at Green Ship of the Future

“Digital technologies, such as 3D print, requires a change of mindset and the ability to replace our usual linear thinking with a more exponential one”, Anne Katrine Bjerregaard, Head of Secretariat at Green Ship of the Future, comments.

“We often see ourselves as conservative in the maritime industry. Although I personally don’t think that this is true in general, but you do see some scepticism towards new technology in many places”, says Thomas Bruun Clausen (@ThomasBClausen), Business Development Manager at Alfa Laval, a project partner in Green Ship of the Future’s investigation.

There are few in the maritime industry who are skilled in using 3D printers. However, there is time to learn, as this technology still needs to reach its full potential in the shipping industry.

“As with any new technology, the biggest challenge is to understand the technology”, Bjerregaard says. “We need to look to other industries and engage in partnerships or collaborations to acquire the necessary competences.”

Echoing Bjerregaard’s views, Clausen calls to other industry leaders.

“We need to increase speed in creating and adopting new rules and regulations, building up knowledge, hiring new skilled labour to this industry like data scientists, changing business models, and so on”.

According to Clausen, the use of 3D printers for fast prototyping small parts is possible even today. Furthermore, printers are often able to produce specialised products for the same cost as mass-produced units. Nevertheless, producing larger complex elements is proving to be challenging, due to the fact the production process often requires more insight and experience into material behaviour than 3D printing can currently offer.

“Ensuring quality is typically easier in traditional production where it is often enough to test random samples. For 3D printing, it usually requires you to test each element”, says Clausen.

Given these factors it is clear there are still benefits to sticking with the traditional methods. However, once these production challenges have been overcome, suppliers will question whether there is a way to survive the wave of digitisation brought on by 3D printing.

Thomas Bruun Clausen, Business Development Manager at Alfa Laval

Clausen suggests to look at it as an opportunity.

“People treat disruption as if it is something to fear. Something that forces you to change and turn away from something safe and well known”, Clausen explains. “The increased rate of disruptions we see in the world today is a tell-tale that something huge is coming. In classic capitalism, it would be called creative destruction: the point where old technology has been refined and utilized to its maximum potential and it is overtaken or disrupted by a completely different approach and sometimes new players. Hence, disruption should be seen as a potential. A potential for new growth, new ventures and new changes to the world, our industry and your business.”

One way to change the perception of this is to raise awareness of the technology available.

“Our process gave the participants the possibility of discussing the technology in an informal setting and with no end purpose other than to learn and understand”, Bjerregaard said.

Clausen agrees, that the learning process needs to happen, and the opportunities need to be realised today. However, taking the leap that leaves scepticism and traditional processes behind is hard. Our own poll suggested that the shipping industry is on the fence about innovation. But it is increasingly clear that as other industries are evolving technologically, shipping should not be left behind.

Some have already started.

“The future is data driven”, states Clausen. “The old times when industries could live in their own bubble is over. The maritime industry will start seeing that 3D printing technology is quickly adopted in other industries. Hence, it will be a question of whether it will be an adoption forced from the outside into our industry or something that grows from our industry outwards.”

Although the most obvious use for 3D printing is to locally create spare parts or to fix small broken pieces on the ship, Clausen explains that a 3D printer is not just a “different type of hammer for banging nails into boards” and that 3D printing can solve questions that only a few in the shipping industry are even asking.

“Think of valves without moving parts. Think of self-healing pipes. Think of sensors built into the products during production. Think of mechanical and thermodynamic properties in constructions that just haven’t been practically possible before. Using this, fast prototyping, rapid data based collaborative learning cycles and fast deployment of change-requests are just on our doorstep. 3D printing will kick innovation speed in our industry into a whole new gear with increased competitiveness for those who adopt it in time.”

In the current economy that shipping is in, is the industry ready for the future? What could it do to survive in this tough financial situation and stay competitive in a world of developing technology? Does 3D technology offer a viable, cost effective solution for efficient design, repair and replacement commitments? The future ROI which investors can expect remains to be seen, and would need to be evaluated in light of their reasons for embracing this technology; namely, whether they are looking for short term gains or have a long-term mindset for development.

“We need to engage in partnerships with external technology experts, but also other maritime stakeholders, if the purpose is to add something truly new and innovative to our existing platform”, suggests Bjerregaard.

Clausen agrees, demonstrating a particular interest in high speed data sharing and digitalisation, as the key to all new technological developments.

“Digitalization has a strong focus in Alfa Laval”, he explains. “Increasingly, Alfa Laval uses advanced software, sensors and connectivity to monitor the condition of installed equipment. Knowing the right time to replace components and how to operate equipment in an optimal way is critical to plan productivity and uptime.”

Solutions like this is only available through the willingness to evolve. As Bjerregaard suggested, learning is the first step to move forward, whether your business benefits from rapid prototyping or from other incredible innovations.

For more futuristic ideas and updates on the market, come and join us at Shipping2030.

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