3D printing: parts of a bigger picture

Speculation on the impact of 3D printing on the maritime industry has been running for nearly two decades. Now the first contours of a commercial 3D printing venture are emerging, with Wilhelmsen and six of its customers teaming up to shape a more sustainable future.

“Decarbonization is one of shipping's greatest challenges, but it also offers opportunities, and all stakeholders will be affected,” says Nakul Malhotra, Vice President Open Innovation, Marine Products, Wilhelmsen Ship Services. “The expectations generated by current regulations are only the starting point. With an ever-increasing focus on the environmental footprint, we must challenge ourselves to constantly do better.”

In their pursuit of low-carbon solutions, Wilhelmsen has chosen not only to look at reshaping the larger assets of ships and energy, but also to examine the opportunities available throughout their supply chain and product portfolio, including digital solutions for replacement parts.

  • 3D-printed scupper plugs, the first delivery from the Early Adopter program, made to Berge Bulk
  • 3D-printed scupper plugs, the first delivery from the Early Adopter program, made to Berge Bulk

Fitting the pieces together

Malhotra explains that the cost of replacement parts is largely tied up in inventory, freight and logistics. Part of the solution is printing parts at strategic hubs around the world, for pick-up by ships in transit. Connecting smart parts to the Internet of Things can also reduce their carbon footprint and cut costs along the value chain. “Basically, getting parts to talk to each other, or even to other parts of the ecosystem, in order to know in advance what part is needed where, and when,” Malhotra says. “This is becoming possible because communication technologies are progressing to the point that vessels can communicate at scale, not least with each other.”

Improved quality is another argument. 3D printing is the generic term for using machines to create physical objects from digital models, either by means of subtractive (removing material by grinding or milling) or additive manufacturing (constructing by layering or depositing material). “We can analyze why parts are breaking or wearing too quickly, and that allows us to print a better version of the part. Additive manufacturing also enables us to implement complex structures in parts, including incorporating different physical characteristics in the same item,” Malhotra says.

But he is adamant that Wilhelmsen’s 3DP initiative, through the early adopter program, is not competing with original equipment manufacturers (OEM) on parts. “We are very aware of intellectual property rights,” he assures. “This is not a back door to get around manufacturers’ rights. We are working with the OEMs as an important part of this initiative.” In addition, he points out that on-demand manufacturing can fill a need at the lower end of the market: “Most parts are generic, and many machines are outdated, with no replacement parts available on the traditional market.”

Hitting the sweet spot

Proof of concept for has been established by printing the most complex parts, like propellers, but that alone will not lead to the broader adoption of the technology, Malhotra claims. “The crew or the managers don’t care how a part was made, as long as it is fit for purpose. We call the current level we are aiming for ‘comfort-critical’, meaning that we can guarantee the necessary degree of security to customers wanting to use printed parts. Broader adoption of printed parts will be achieved first on a lower threshold.”

When 3D printing technology began to emerge as viable, the talk was of installing printers on ships so they could generate their own parts. Malhotra offers his take on why this idea has not taken off: “Number one because additive manufacturing requires access to a broad range of materials. We have a library of over 80 materials in our print shops around the world, and this is simply not feasible to duplicate on individual ships. In addition, we need skilled and stable crew to run the machines. The solution is to hit the sweet spot with strategic placement of printing stations that are easily accessible to the global fleet.”

Malhotra acknowledges that 3D printing presents a challenge to the traditional centralized manufacturing setup. “Some potential customers will try and deny the value of the concept, others will embrace it. OEMs are the same way. Some will be closed to change, and some open.” Shipping and freight companies are understandably concerned, he notes, but believes that 3D printing will probably not impact shipping volumes significantly. “In any case it is going to happen, and we believe it must be better to take the lead, rather than be playing catch-up.”

Beyond the hype

“3D printing is the current focus, but this is not a one-off initiative,” Malhotra emphasizes. “The story is bigger than that, and it started with recognizing the digital revolution as a mega trend in 2015.” He recalls that when the digital wave broke, many in the shipping industry began to make claims of being data-centric: “All of a sudden everybody wanted to believe they were Google.”

As the hype of digitalization dies down, Malhotra believes that industry players will need to find their own areas of competence and bridge them with new age technology capabilities to create added value in shipping. “We are a 160 year-old company in the age of digitalization. As such, we need to create space between those responsible for running the core products portfolio of the company and the team focusing on innovation, but without separating the two,” he relates. “Why establish a totally disconnected start-up when we have all that knowledge to feed on? The bridge between ideas and experience is where the magic is made.”

The initial steps were taken in 2018 with the establishment of a venture team in the core product management group. The next phase in the evolution was to set up the Open Innovation team, launched in November of 2019. Following several months of early concept testing, one of the team’s first tasks was to forge a commercially viable way forward on 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

A new ecosystem emerges

The Wilhelmsen-led initiative is currently backed by Carnival Maritime, Thome Ship Management, OSM Maritime Group, Berge Bulk, Executive Ship Management and Wilhelmsen Ship Management, all of whom have signed up with Wilhelmsen’s Marine Products division as early adopters of on-demand additive manufacturing. Ivaldi, a digital manufacturing start-up out of Silicon Valley, has been engaged as technology partner, joining the expanding ecosystem together with DNV GL and Thyssenkrup.

“We do not have all the answers or the necessary resources ourselves, so we are looking to stimulate a wider co-creation environment,” Malhotra explains. “We need to partner with customers, suppliers, regulators and innovators in order to realize this amazing technology’s true potential. 3D printing requires a different ecosystem than traditional centralized manufacturing.”

There is a standing invitation for all interested parties to join the ecosystem, he assures. “As long as they are open to understanding the value propositions, now and in the future. We are looking forward to expanding the ecosystem. The only way to ensure success is to collaborate.”

Time to eat the pudding

“It has been a long wait. Now people need to see if this is real,” Malhotra maintains. “We have six early adopters with 10 ships each. That means 60 ships testing the concept and vetting solutions, starting with the most accessible products.” Their aim is to build trust and confidence among the public and end users using a stepwise approach: “We have to test this out in real life. Success will be defined by moving from a group of early adopters to a larger number of fast movers. We have all the components in place to deliver this solution. Now we see if it works, and if people want to use it.”

He emphasizes that the shift will not happen overnight. “This is a major development and it will require orchestrated and planned implementation. Ultimately consumers are going to drive progress in this field, all along the value chain from manufacturers, retailers and service suppliers to buyers. The benefits for customers must be clear if all players are to subscribe to the model.”


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