Will Shipbuilding Be the Next Industry to Take on 3D Printing?

A giant, not-3D printed ship

A report from software company Shipbuilder suggests the ship building industry may be next up to take on 3D printing at scale. 

According to Geert Schouten, Director at Shipbuilder: 

During my workshops I often hear the remark that it will take a long time for this disruption to take place, for example because 3D printers really can’t print a ship. That is an incorrect way of thinking, because it is based on the current possibilities for designing and building ships. With a completely different approach to design and building, many parts of a ship can be 3D printed. Digitalization, robotization and 3D printing will successfully join forces here.

And this is entirely true. But let’s look at this industry and see how 3D printing might fit in – or not. 

Aerospace is an industry where 3D printing has caught on, mostly because the current state of the technology can produce parts that are lighter and stronger than any other process. As experience grows in that industry, we see an increasingly proportion of aircraft parts produced using 3D printing. However, the industry still does not 3D print “flight critical” parts; that change will require significant quality control systems. 

Automotive is a similar industry where lighter parts can make a big difference in the final product. Customization may also play a role in the future, where parts may be personalized in some way as per customer demands. 

 Launching a ship
Launching a ship

But what about ship building? Like aerospace and automotive, you’re producing a large manufactured item. But ships can be fantastically larger than cars or aircraft. 

Another difference is the number of units produced. While there may be hundreds of thousands of cars and hundreds of aircraft, ships are far lower in number and almost are custom-destined per project. 

When I hear this, 3D printing does come to mind: it is often the best technology to produce a one-off item, as opposed to mass manufacturing. 

But in the case of ship building the parts can be extremely large, and currently there are no such 3D printers that would be capable of producing very large quality parts from which you could assemble a large ocean-going vessel. In fact, the 3D printing industry is just coming around to the idea of making machines capable of producing auto-sized parts, let alone ship-sized parts. 

That said, there are many parts required to make a ship and no doubt there are smaller items that could be produced effectively with today’s technology in the same way that aerospace makes use of the technology. 

Eventually, however, it seems likely that someone will produce a 3D printer of sufficient build volume to produce large ship components. An array of such machines could rapidly produce custom shapes to precise specifications, opening up a world of ship design options not previously attainable. 

Via Shipbuilder
Image Credit: Wikimedia

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