Marine tech aside, there are a few non-negotiable facts about ships: 1) they’re almost always on the move and 2) in the event of a fault, procuring spare parts while at sea is borderline impossible. So if certain repair and maintenance issues can only be dealt with while a ship is docked, wouldn’t it be great to find a way around that and be able to fix problems mid-voyage?

Welcome to the technology of the future AKA the weird and wonderful world of 3D printing. You may have heard of this outlandish-sounding technology being used for everything from printing 3D sports shoes to printed prosthetics for use in the medical industry.

But could 3D printing be responsible for changing the future of the shipping sector?

We’ll take a look into that - but first, the billion dollar question:

Everything you need to know about marine tech and 3D printing?

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is defined as the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data.” At the moment there are seven different additive manufacturing techniques that are referred to as 3D printing. But we’re going to keep it simple!

white 3D decorative skull

The best known of these techniques is called material jetting: a process in which layers of plastic wire are melted one on top of each other to create a 3D structure. There is also something called powder-bed extrusion which is of particular interest to the shipping industry as it has the ability to form complex metal structures. Which takes us right back to those spare parts.  

3D printing in the shipping industry: the pros

There are a number of benefits to adopting 3D print as a maritime technology. For example, being able to repair a ship while at sea will, at least temporarily, stem any safety or efficiency issues until port can be reached. And while it’s unlikely that large parts could be printed during a voyage, there seems to be no reason why basic spares such as impellers or valves couldn’t be printed out and put to use in the event of an emergency, thus creating a very real example of marine tech at work.

Once docked, delays can also be kept to a minimum thanks to 3D printers at a port being used as a solution to produce spare parts for ships there and then - as opposed to them having to be transported from the manufacturer. This is clearly beneficial when it comes to reducing the transportation and warehousing costs that are passed on from said manufacturer to the shipping company. Changing the future? Maybe!

3D printing in the shipping industry: the cons

3D print may be a technology of the future but in certain circumstances it might not be of much use. Large components will still need to be finished by machine - a 3D printer does not have the skills or capabilities to cut threads or polish parts. (Yet!) In addition, many parts are manufactured from a number of different alloys and that would mean keeping a comparable amount of metals onboard in order to be able to print those spare parts for ships.

person holding crystal ball out towards the ocean at sunset

That in turn leads to concerns about material corrosion and storage space with controlled conditions - less a marine tech issue and more of a physical one.  

And while these might not be cons per se there are other issues to address before the industry adopts 3D printing as standard maritime technology: the quality control and regulation of printed components, the protection of intellectual property rights and the training of personnel to name just three.

The automotive and aerospace industries are changing the future of their industries and have embraced 3D printing and additive manufacturing. It remains to be seen whether the shipping industry is quite so welcoming.

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