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For ships at sea, the costs of securing a new part or component can escalate rapidly. Could 3D printing help optimise the shipping industry's supply chain for spare parts? Jarek Klimczak, Marine Risk Engineer, Asia Pacific, AXA XL Risk Consulting, offers his views.

While maritime history is full of numerous famous (and infamous) ships, one seems especially relevant to the topic of self-sufficiency: the Fram. This three-masted schooner was constructed in Norway— Fram means "forward" in Norwegian—and used for extended expeditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic between 1893 and 1912. Among the Fram's claims to fame are that it sailed farther north (85°57'N) and south (78°41'S) than any other wooden ship.

Survival meant keeping an extensive inventory of supplies onboard as well as the tools, materials and skills needed to fashion and repair essential items. Now housed in a museum in Oslo, visitors can tour the Fram’s onboard carpentry, machine and textile shops and see firsthand how the ship remained self-sufficient during its long expeditions in the most inhospitable parts of the world.

Delays are costly
The Fram was purpose-built for polar expeditions and naturally is quite different from ships plying the oceans nowadays. For starters, today's array of container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, RoRos and the like are vastly larger and more complex. The Triple E class of container ships operated by A.P. Møller - Mærsk A/S, for instance, are almost 400m long and 60m wide. These ships can carry 18-20 thousand standard 20-foot shipping containers and are powered by twin two-stroke diesel engines operating at close to 30 megawatts. Along with the systems and infrastructure needed to accommodate the crew, these vessels also rely on sophisticated navigation and propulsion systems that enable them to maintain tightly regimented schedules with precise departure and arrival dates and times.

Nonetheless, even with their modern construction and advanced technology, operating around-the-clock in marine environments that are not always benign also means that things sometimes go wrong. Accidents happen, systems fail, parts break. When that occurs, the solution may not be available onboard; most ships today don't have the same level of self-sufficiency as the Fram. If a vessel happens to be close to one of the major ports in Asia, the U.S. or Europe where suppliers and OEMs are clustered, its problems can usually be resolved fairly quickly. However, if it is, say, off the coast of Africa or Polynesia, its nearest resources could be more than 10 thousand kilometres away.

Moreover, in addition to the delivery challenges of getting needed components to wherever ships are located, manufacturing delays and customs controls also can extend wait times. All these holdups exact costs: for the shipowner paying premium prices to expedite the process, the cargo owners penalised for missing deadlines, and the insurers liable for covered losses.

Lagging behind other industries
Could additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing as its commonly known, help to reduce if not eliminate these bottlenecks?

AM technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and the applications that transform 3D data into physical objects are increasingly versatile and efficient. Some of the things now being constructed with 3D printers include houses, bridges, furniture and an extensive assortment of spare parts and components that previously were cast in sand moulds, then machined.

To improve self-sufficiency on ships, the idea is simple: when something breaks, the crew could use an onboard 3D printer to fabricate a new part or component. I think the skilled carpenters, sailmakers and machinists—or “fitters” in today’s parlance—who were part of the Fram's crew would approve. The advantages of this approach also seem obvious: it would diminish the need for extensive inventories of various spare parts and limit the possibility of costly delays. Importantly, precedence for using 3D printers in other industries—aerospace and medical devices are pioneers—is providing proof of the benefits to orienting the spare-parts supply chain around 3D printing.

However, according to research commissioned by a consortium of organisations including the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), "The current adoption level of AM for marine parts is close to non-existent, despite the consensus that such technology could have potential applications for spare parts, repairs and even new builds". The MPA report cites a lack of awareness, confidence and "commonly accepted qualification and certification approaches" as the primary reasons why AM has not yet been widely deployed in the maritime industry.

Highly feasible but with caveats
The first two challenges are surmountable, and the industry is starting to develop greater awareness of and confidence in sourcing spare parts via AM. In 2017, for instance, the Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing Laboratory successfully printed the world's first Class approved ship propeller. That garnered a lot of attention within the industry and helped spur further efforts to understand where and how the benefits of AM could best be achieved.

The resulting research sponsored by the MPA (referenced above) included an assessment of the feasibility of using 3D printing to fabricate replacements for each of the hundred most common marine parts delivered by ship chandlers/parts suppliers in Singapore. Based on a series of objective and qualitative criteria, the researchers concluded that 72 of these items were "highly feasible for 3D printing".

However, 39 of these components are utilised in places critical to ship safety and, as such, require "Class certification". While the researchers noted "There are presently no AM standards specific to the maritime industry", that, too, is beginning to change. A leading Singapore-based company recently received an endorsement from DNV GL (a global quality-assurance and risk-management company supporting the maritime sector) for its 3D printing procedures tailored to the shipping and offshore energy industries.

Cautiously optimistic
So, where do we go from here? The evidence thus far shows that 3D printing can help reduce complexity in spare-parts supply chains by bringing manufacturing closer to the end-user.

However, and as always, these benefits must be balanced against the costs. The initial investments in AM machines and facilities are not trivial. Moreover, few people currently have professional training in these processes. While the costs of 3D printing are coming down and many universities are beginning to provide the necessary training, most observers predict it will be some time before 3D printers become common onboard ships. A level of self-sufficiency akin to the Fram remains aspirational for now.

In the meantime, the notion of dispersed repair/supply hubs built around AM is taking hold. That's the vision here in Singapore, where the MPA, Singapore Shipping Association and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster have launched a "joint industry programme" to better support maritime companies via local 3D printing operations. Similar initiatives are either underway or in the planning phases in other parts of the world.

AXA XL's perspective on these developments is one of cautious optimism. We applaud efforts to use new, innovative technologies to improve safety and performance and reduce costs. Also, compared to traditional methods, 3D printing is better for the environment since its production processes involve much less raw material and lend themselves to producing customised products cheaply. Our concerns about 3D printing relate to possible safety and liability issues in the absence of clear, specific standards and procedures for certifying parts critical to the security of vessels and crews. Nonetheless, we are confident these barriers will be overcome, and the shipping industry will soon embrace 3D printing for a wide variety of parts and components.

Jarek Klimczak is a former seafarer and Master Mariner. Nowadays he is a Marine Risk Engineer based in Singapore supporting a broad range of transportation clients, over the sea and inland. He can be reached at jarek.klimczak@axaxl.com

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  • Marine Risk Engineer, AXA XL
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