Building the case for additive manufacturing

RAMLAB at the Port of Rotterdam wowed the world when they presented the very first metal printed certified propeller. That milestone silenced doubters and signaled the arrival of 3D printing as a viable challenger to traditional marine parts manufacturing

The world’s first 3D printed propeller
The world’s first 3D printed propeller

3D printing applies to both subtractive and additive manufacturing, either removing or depositing material to form objects. RAMLAB was established in 2016 to pursue a vision of printing metal parts on demand using wire arc additive manufacturing, or WAAM. In 2017, after only one year of operation, they produced the world’s first 3D printed propeller, made up of 298 layers of nickel-aluminum-bronze alloy.

“That got a lot of attention,” says Vincent Wegener, managing director at RAMLAB. “At the very least it was a myth-buster. Some claimed that we would never manage to produce a certified propeller at all, and then we did it in our second year. That opened a lot of eyes, and a lot of minds.”

Conceived chiefly as an R&D initiative, RAMLAB’s aim is to move additive manufacturing from R&D into commercial production. “The ultimate goal is to achieve full profitability. We have been investing in getting things working. Now we need to identify the parts that are relevant to print,” says Wegener.

RAMLAB managing director Vincent Wegener
RAMLAB managing director Vincent Wegener

RAMLAB’s main investor is the Port of Rotterdam, in partnership with InnovationQuarter and RDM Makerspace. “Submarines for the Royal Netherlands Navy used to be built on this site. Now we are back to serving military customers, as well as billion-dollar companies.” While the client list remains largely confidential, industries include oil and gas, energy, equipment suppliers, defense, and aerospace.

“Importantly, we also have a good relationship to Delft University of Technology,” Wegener tells. “We offer internships, working closely with the professors. That means we have students, PhDs, and post-doctoral researchers working in the lab, coming from China, Italy, and Greece, in addition to Northern Europe.”

He acknowledges that 3D printing could either be a threat or an opportunity for shipping, disrupting established supply chains, but also giving owners, operators and suppliers the chance to reduce inventory and transport costs. “Will it hurt or help the shipping industry? We don’t know, but our philosophy is to embrace new technologies rather than fear them.”

RAMLAB’s current drive is toward automation and serial production, a key step toward commercial viability. “Technology is digitizing everything, including manufacturing. The parts manufacturing and supply industry has not been disrupted yet, but if we can be quicker, better, faster, and closer, they will have to respond.”

AI and machine learning will only speed up the additive manufacturing process and improve quality, Wegener believes. “This is the time when everything is happening, and we are in the middle of it all, just trying to ride the wave.”

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