3D printing in shipping: how the ‘make-local’ concept could alter the sector

by Nicola Pacifico, Head of Transport Engineering, AAL first published in Breakbulk Magazine, December 2016

Multipurpose shipping may not be at the cutting edge of global technological advances, but we like to think of ourselves as fast adopters. So, it is with great interest that we have followed the advancement of 3D printing, or additive printing. Will a day come when it will be more cost effective to print out a windmill blade or huge industrial plant component in one country, rather than go the trouble of manufacturing it and shipping it from another country?

Three-dimensional printing technology has been touted as having the potential to bring about a second industrial revolution and a manufacturing sector without tooling, assembly lines or supply chains. It is incredible technology, and although it has been around for 20 years, is still in its infancy. It has traditionally been used for rapid prototyping and in industries like aerospace and defense, automotive and healthcare, as well as small-scale retail manufacturing like household goods, jewelry and fashion accessories.

As the accuracy and size of printed objects increases, 3D print services are being used to create even more substantial things such as topographical models, light engine parts, aerodynamic bodies and custom prosthetics. However, it has yet to disrupt the manufacturing and supply chain of heavy-lift and breakbulk shipping cargo, and I cannot foresee a time just yet, when a 550-tonne reactor or 60-meter-long windmill blade can be reproduced using a 3D printer. After all, the largest 3D item ever ‘printed’ to-date was a 5-meter wing trim for Boeing, which weighed just over 750 kilograms.

The most immediate impact of 3D printing is likely to be felt within the shipping supply chain for smaller components, particularly in the market for vessel and hardware spare parts. Shipping companies could theoretically print their own components, either with a 3D printer on board, or a 3D print workshop in port. The benefits are obvious at first glance, particularly for a relatively simple but high-value component, and the long-term impact on the supply chain could be profound. However, there are many important questions still to answer about the operational and safety implications of using 3D printed parts, the licensing arrangements for the 3D blueprints and the value of the manufacturer’s guarantee.

 

Making a Difference

In the planning, engineering and risk management stages of project shipping, the case for 3D print technology is very different. Here, I can see a time soon when physical and scaled 3D modeling of ships, cargo and stowage plans will replace virtual imaging and add a totally new dimension and level of transparency and service for customers.

Courier companies and container lines may need to be cautious of the advancement of 3D print technology. As these machines creep into homes, businesses and retail stores, it may prove cheaper to download a file off the Internet and have a product printed at home, or a local 3D printing hub, rather than it being shipped. This will significantly cut down on the number of items shipped, and we could become a future society demanding raw materials rather than finished goods – which is actually good news for bulk carriers.

No one can predict the future and some may say 3D printing is over-hyped. After all, this technology has only begun to step outside the walls of prototyping facilities. However, there is no denying that in the last three years we have seen more progress in the 3D printing space than in the previous 20 years combined.

The world may change and the nature of the cargoes we carry will evolve, but shippers will continue to rely on logistics partners that can operate across their diverse supply chains and distribution networks. This doesn’t, however, mean that we can afford to rest on our laurels. The physical assets, skills and service offerings of many breakbulk carriers are the result of current market conditions and customer expectations. The challenge for us all is to anticipate and prepare for tomorrow’s problems, requirements and technologies.