Significant advances in 3D printing technology over the last decade are transforming the way in which products are designed, prototyped, and manufactured.
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a manufacturing method that builds objects by laying down successive thin layers of material until the object takes its final form.
It has fewer design restrictions that constrain conventional manufacturing processes, and has the potential to shorten manufacturing time significantly. A major aircraft engine manufacturer claims that 3D printing has reduced manufacturing time for some applications by almost a third.
These advances offer possibilities for novel designs, as well as more lightweight products, with shorter production times and reduced costs. The technology is already being used for rapid prototyping, but it is now gradually being integrated into existing manufacturing infrastructure, for example in the automotive and aircraft-manufacturing industries. Although, oil & gas and maritime industries constitute only about 5% of the total additive manufacturing market, it is anticipated that its reach in these industries will increase rapidly.
The US Navy has started testing the technology on board ships, to evaluate the potential of producing spare parts and other equipment as needed. However, this requires trained personnel on board, and the printer will be subject to the motions of the ship, potentially affecting product quality. A more promising approach would be to use the technology in the production phase, for lightweight parts or complex parts that cannot be manufactured easily with conventional techniques. Another application could be producing spare parts locally in ports around the world, as required, thereby reducing delivery times and costs.
There are some risks that should be considered.
Qualification and certification may present significant challenges because of the potential for variability in specified properties. The traditional qualification methods of repeated testing of an end product produced from a centralized facility will not be sufficient. The distributed nature of additive manufacturing means that the product variability determined for one location may be entirely different for another location owing to software and hardware differences, or other factors. An additional or ‘second order’ downside of additive manufacturing for shipping is that the distributed production of manufactured goods may reduce the overall demand for shipping of goods – a trend that will warrant careful analysis as additive manufacturing reaches scale.