Shipboard 3D Printing Expanding Worldwide


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Polar waters, icy environments and seemingly harsh surroundings make the Arctic one of the most difficult marine settings to work in, especially with regards to ship and marine technology. This complexity demands some risk-based designs and frameworks for safe and sustainable technology that can survive in harsh ecosystems. Very difficult sailing conditions in Arctic or Antarctic waters, offshore oil rigs and fleets travelling in harsh seas, has propelled governments and companies to include additive manufacturing in structures made to survive severe maritime conditions. In 2014 the United States Navy began considering bringing 3D printers on board their ships, they envisioned a not so distant future when they could print spare parts, miniature combat drones, and even organs or other body parts, on Navy vessels in the middle of the sea. While In 2017, the US Coast Guard used 3D printers to create spare parts (not normally kept on vessels and which may be difficult to source) on board its ships. Currently, 3D printers are available for crew use on five Coast Guard cutters as well as at several shore units, including Base New Orleans and the Surface Forces Logistics Center Engineering Services Division in Baltimore.

Similarly, Coast Guard academy professor, Ron Adrezin, uses the technology for operations in remote areas aboard the Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker that goes on research missions in the Arctic and Bering seas. On another front, International Submarine Engineering (ISE) used Sciaky’s Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) technology to produce a titanium Variable Ballast (VB) tank for an arctic submarine. It’s all about having a 3D printer for full access and on site to create some hard-to-get parts that come in really handy when bad weather conditions keep ships from moving, severe storms break something in the middle of the sea or ice threatens entire fleets.

In 2015, Canadian company Oceanic Consulting Corporation, a subsidiary of Fleetway, used 3D printing to create bespoke replacement parts and modify them as required in house, for many of their research and development projects to study and improve ships, fixed and floating offshore structures and other advanced marine systems. Located in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the company applies 3D technology to realize some ambitious projects. Their ongoing need to create accurate scale models and simulate real-world environments, made Oceanic search for the perfect-fit 3D printer. The research and design team on Oceanic works towards improving the safety of vessels navigating in harsh sea ice environments, managing extreme cold temperatures and large ice loads. Combining expertise in mechanical engineering, experimental research and numerical simulation in Arctic Engineering with 3D printing could be just what they needed to increase efficiency and reduce costs for some of their projects. 

3D Printed Marine Part from a Stratasys Machine

The company purchased a Stratasys 3D printer from Javelin Technologies, for fabricating essential components as they usually work under very tight timelines due to their customers’ needs for delivery in short time periods -usually just a few weeks-. Using the Stratasys 3D printer, together with SOLIDWORKS 3D CAD Software, allows Oceanic specialists to quickly turn concepts into physical parts, giving them new opportunities to do work in house that was once sent to outside suppliers. Making the complexity of parts fabrication possible with the 3D printer has allowed for enhanced sophistication in physical model experiments, which allows for improved accuracy and happier clients.

Oceanic claims they save time using SOLIDWORKS and doing their own 3D printing to validate designs quickly to meet demanding project deadlines. They are also always testing and pushing the 3D printer and the capabilities of the build material to their limits, sometimes designing very thin parts. The fabrication team was already accustomed to Javelin’s high level of service and support, so working with the company was an obvious choice.

Working in an often harsh marine environment presents extra challenges, and having a 3D printer allows Oceanic to efficiently print replacement parts and modify them as required. It is now possible to 3D print parts that were once only machined, so designers can add detail and features that would otherwise be very expensive – even impossible – to machine. Examples include mechanical linkages, rudders, mounting brackets, props, and even custom instrumentation.

The scope of some of Oceanic’s projects is to develop guidelines for the safe and sustainable design of ships and fleets that need to venture into harsh marine environments, by combining practical knowledge, state of the art engineering methods, and fundamental hazard concept design. That is why Oceanic has access to a comprehensive suite of world class marine research facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador, which include the National Research Council of Canada’s Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Portfolio, and Memorial University’s Ocean Engineering Research Centre and Marine Institute.  Whether it has been contracted to study ships, boats, offshore structures, or other marine systems, Oceanic provides clients with the expertise, advanced facilities, and now 3D printing technology to realize even the most ambitious project. 

NOAA: Formlabs Form2 Printer mounted to the GyroPro stabilization platform, used for mapping deepwater areas in the Caribbean and South Atlantic Bight

Going one step further and in a more recent attempt to 3D print in a dynamic environment, in 2018 the US Department of Commerces’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a team on board the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer with a Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) style printer which uses an ultraviolet (UV) curable liquid and a laser to cure the liquid layer by layer, to map deepwater areas in the Caribbean and South Atlantic Bight. Harsh marine areas pose quite a challenge for engineers and designers to develop technology that will aid ships, marine structures and communities to work in some of the worst conditions in the planet, but having accesible 3D printing technology either in house for restoring and creating spare parts or even on board can become life-changing.

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