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A Composite Reckoning of Titanic Proportions

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Over the past few days, much of the world has been glued to their respective screens. The drama centered on a submarine, the Titanic, and a terribly mystery. People have learned a lot more about submarines, undersea exploration, and just how callous some individuals can be.

There are, however, some specific implications for the 3D printing industry in this disaster. This is not an attempt to bandwagon on an already told tale, but the tragedy is one that should give us pause and insight, hopefully. I believe that we will see four takeaways from this disaster emerge as ghosts in the public consciousness. One is about safety practices, another related to wireless controllers, one related to safety sensors and one more linked to composites. The first two could be mined for lessons for our own practices, the third and fourth have real impact on the 3D printing industry.

Culture above All Else

The facts as we know them today are that five people are presumed dead. A catastrophic implosion took their lives in seconds, deep beneath the ocean. Famously, the owner of the Titan submarine and the company that made it, Ocean Gate, did not believe in safety. More than his name, people will probably remember the quote “safety is waste.” More completely he said, “You know, at some point, safety is just pure waste.” And I think many have already concluded that, if a company that protects human lives does not maintain a safety culture, where safety is not a priority, then disaster is just a matter of time. Indeed, in this case, the company was more than forwarned.

I personally hope that some good will come of this incident in the form of giving some pause to the “move fast and break things” crowd where human lives are concerned. The takeaway for all should be that when human life is concerned that safety awareness, concern, procedures and practices are important. They may be cumbersome but lives are more precious than cash. Even if you looked at this in the purest sociopathic form you could conclude that speed is important but if it kills, then the opportunity to make money is completely lost. I also hope that the callous way through which people approached this incident will give many pause to reconsider a general receding and reduction in empathy worldwide.

Engineered for Life

The most memorable thing is, of course, the wireless Logitech controller that was the focus of much opprobrium. Looming larger than that in my mind is redundancy. If the wireless connection fails or if you didn’t charge the controller what redundant systems where there?

The team reportedly had multiple controllers as spares, but this is not truly redundant. A spare doesn’t replace the system. Usually, redundancy means that if you have an electrical system and it fails, a hydraulic system can take over, replicating all the needed functionality with a completely self contained system subject to different environmental pressures. Another thing that I’m fixated on was the button. This is a kind of LED illuminated push button that reminds me an awful lot of the early Formlabs buttons. Even though some of these types of buttons have IPV65 or similar it doesn’t all seem like the hardened marine switches that you’d like to have on a boat, let alone on a submarine. Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron discussed some of the corner cutting and lack of certification while previous passengers pointed to, frankly terrifying scares. On the whole these factoids will probably make this an enduring example of how not to approach a difficult engineering project.

Monitoring

The Titanic wreck is at 3800 meters, the pressure there is over 380 times that we experience at sea level. The pressure found there is 5532.42 psi or 376.46 atm or 381 bar. In terms of its hostility to human life and harshness on vehicles this is an incredibly testing environment. One of the most important innovations that the Titan had was a hull safety monitoring system. This failed. But, similar sensing technology underpins a lot of promises that we have been making with 3D Printed bridges and the like. Just having sensors will not make something intrinsically safe. Just monitoring will not ensure that a bridge can not collapse. In order to keep pitching our Digital Twin IoT 3D Printed sensors vision we will have to come up with ways to ensure that safety critical monitoring is done well. How can we do this? This is an important question because the whole idea that some smart monitoring can help usher in a new technology has been shattered. We will have to stave these promises going forward. We must not be chancers like OceanGate.

Composites

A far bigger problem for us will be composites. That hull monitoring system was supposed to ensure the safety of the Titan´s hull which has steel end caps and a composite body. Composites, carbon fiber and CFRP have all been seen as some wonder material. Lightweight, high strength to weight this combination of woven fiber and thermoset has been a futuristic desired material for years now. From $10,000 bicycles to sunglasses, cars, Formula 1 and more, carbon fiber has been a desired, cool, strong material in the minds of the world.

Through combining AFP (automatic fiber placement) and 3D Printing a lot of people are trying to make composite parts with 3D Printing. Several others are developing multiple 3D Printing technologies using long fiber composites or incorporating composite mats or in short file composite parts as well. The strength of these parts is seen as self evident. Of course it’s more modern and better than boring old steel or other things. This has just received a rather public dent. Now I’m not sure at this point if composites even had a role to play in this accident. But, composites are getting blamed.

The “composite design was a completely horrible idea,” and critically flawed, composites made in six weeks, needed no voids and laminations, “Lochridge’s worry that “visible flaws” in the carbon fiber supplied to OceanGate raised the risk of small flaws expanding into larger tears during “pressure cycling.” And,¨maritime regulation experts and experienced mariners say the material and shape of the vessel gave them concern.¨ While this is repeated in different forms,

¨Carbon fiber is a relatively new material for deep sea applications, said Stefano Brizzolara, professor in ocean engineering at Virginia Tech. Traditionally, vessels are made of steel and titanium, which can better withstand pressure and keep water out.“Carbon fiber doesn’t do that,” he said. “It deforms a little bit. And then it immediately and suddenly cracks and breaks.”“The outside pressure is so high that it causes an implosion,” Brizzolara added. “A kind of explosion in reverse.”

Many online commentators and commenters have pointed out that ¨carbon fiber has no compressive strength.¨ All in all it frames composites as being, new, risky and prone to faults. Hereto it was seen as something space aged, super strong and amazing. This is a reckoning that we will have to address in depth, not with sloganeering.

Reckoning

The lack of compressive strength issue could very well be the problem, or it could be voids in the structure or just poor quality control in a rush to market. But it will be composites as a whole that will be blamed, fairly or unfairly. It is commonly known that these materials can be brittle and prone to shattering with sharp impact. Perhaps it was the orcas? Repeated cycles of load and pressure can also introduce failure modes in these structures and this could very well be an issue as well. Catastrophic delamination could also occur. This is one of a number of excellent points brought up in this article which also discusses the dissimilarity of titanium and composite materials.

¨We can only speculate about what happened with the combination of these two technologies, which do not dynamically behave the same way under pressure.¨

It will indeed be many weeks if ever before any real wisdom could be shared on the matter. The dissimilar materials could very well have had issues on the mating surfaces as well in how they are joined. This could have lead to issues. We could also expect behavior akin to stress shearing and stress shielding effects as we have seen in implants. When dissimilar materials meet and collide we can see several effects that could lead to failure. Whichever it is, the magical bubble of carbon fiber has been partially burst.

Why is this important?

Right now a lot of money is being poured into developing economical, automated and large scale carbon fiber components and 3D printing technologies. This is being done because automated production of hulls and fuselages could be of war winning importance in future conflicts. In a race between China and the US, highly automated economical drone production could be the single deciding factor in both a direct conflict or in proxy conflicts. So far it seemed like we were marching towards large scale mass production with mass produced 3D printed hulls and drone components. Any doubt about composites could reflect badly on current and future investments in composites and 3D printed composites as well. So far, we have not been names and indeed it seems as if traditional hand layup was used. But, composite futurism and hope will now have to be staved by numbers, facts and studies which will retard growth in this segment. At least we will know that even if it may slow us down, safety is not just pure waste.

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