The shipping company Maersk has started looking into using additive manufacturing to replace faulty parts onboard its tankers.
The speed of production, readiness of a specific part and the reduction in cost of getting a replacement to tankers positioned all over the world have all played a part in the company's increased interest in 3D printing. While cost could still be prohibitive for metal parts - as the 3D printing machines are still far more expensive - the company and its partners have indicated they see the technology as nearly ready.
Peter Steen Olesen, Maersk’s spokesperson on additive manufacturing said: ‘Production cost will most likely always be higher using a 3D printer, the fascination here is that our vessels are at sea which makes the supply chain more challenging.’ Maersk still have to have certain deliveries made to its vessels for things such as food. So if there are readily available, locally sourced parts they may be included in the delivery. However, when in the middle of the Pacific for example, Olesen said the company is interested in the instant availability of a part provided by 3D printing. ‘A 3D printer onboard a ship could be seen as a safety net for parts not available due to unexpected breakdowns or difficulties reaching the vessel in due time for a certain repair,’ he said.
Markus Kuhn, purchasing manager of group procurement marine, said on the company’s website that parts such as the fans for motors can be very difficult to get a hold of and break down relatively often. Parts such as these, Kuhn explained, could have the blueprint emailed to the crew by the manufacturer where it could then be printed and replaced.
He continued to say that it can sometimes cost up to $5,000 to get a part on board the vessel via conventional methods. 3D printing would remove the costs of the warehouse, packing, airfreight, customs clearance and avoid having to charter a ship to deliver the part to the tanker.
However, for the time being cost could still be too big an issue for metal working additive manufacturing machines. But encouragement can be found in the fact that Maersk’s partners in the venture, Man Diesel and Turbo, which supplies engine parts to the shipping giant, believe the technology to be there, but that the price point is still too high.
Olesen said: ‘From a Supply Chain perspective we are continuously striving to work smarter to reduce cost and improve our delivery model. The idea surfaced a couple of years ago when we were exploring GPS tracking on high value shipments and needed a protective casing which ended up being produced by a 3D printer.’ He continued: ‘We see this as a fast developing technology and something larger organisations like Maersk should explore the potential of.’
He added: ‘3D printing has been around for a while, but it’s only now we see it taking off and starting to mature to a stage where we can see its potential. It is a bit like when we first saw the World Wide Web and were fascinated with this new technology but really didn’t see what it would develop into. In the same way the challenges we face with 3D printing will be overcome in line with the technology spreading to more industries and users. However, there is no doubt that our strategic suppliers will play an important role developing this concept along with us.’