I’ll say it straight: 3D printing will bring to the superyacht industry a new perspective on design freedom, lightweight parts and functionality orientation, and the industry must take up the challenge to take advantage.
At the start of the post-industrial era, imitating nature (biomimicry) has promised much innovation. After thousands of years of natural testing a common pattern has emerged that can build almost everything: lattice structures. You can find them in trees, in Caribbean coral reefs or even within yourself.
There’s a reason every living creature is built like this. It works efficiently and is a simple but powerful concept – maximum load with minimum material and weight. It is a game-changer technology, which emerged in the mid-1980s, and began in aerospace before crossing to our industry. It is known as AM or additive manufacturing (so-called ‘industrial 3D printing’).
In the last four years, we at Atollvic have spent thousands of hours doing superyacht mock-ups and prototyping for complex parts, usually using polymers such as ABS, TPU and polyamide. A lot of industry professionals still think AM is just for printing weak plastic prototypes, but in the last five years, with the integration of new ‘serious’ industrial raw materials, almost 100 different polymers and some metals can now be processed. These include 316L stainless steel, titanium alloys, Inconel, high-yield-strength steels, aluminium alloys and, more recently, brass and copper and even some precious metals. We print the material in its purest form, and with the appropriate manufacturing skills, the quality is better than from a foundry.
There are five key points to consider.
First there is the mass-to-function element, or weight optimisation, where the potential for a 70 per cent weight saving in metal parts leads both to fewer intertial masses in the vessel as well as improved ergonomics, reduced maintenance, reduced noise through vibrations and more. This has all been proven in the aeronautical industry.
Second there is the element of design freedom. It’s a game-changing concept in that it moves industry from designto-manufacturing to design-to-function, with user needs and preferences in mind compared to the limitations of moulding and castings.
There is also the scope for massive personalisation possibilities for (practically) no more production cost because no complex moulding processes are needed and you can simply click and print. We can produce virtually any personalised object that fits on the machine platform (currently around 600mm maximum dimension).
Further, there is less time-to-market as you can have your design printed from the 3D design file and sent anywhere in the world in three to five days or less. This is particularly relevant for yachts needing spare parts.
On top of that is the possibility for reverse engineering – if you have the old part we can build a new one using a high-precision 3D scanning procedure to create the file and then 3D-print an exact replica part. Moreover, you can ask for just one part at a time at your convenience – we keep the file and when you need more, you need simply ask. It’s a process that allows true one-to-infinity production.
Finally, AM is a one-stopshop, in that parts come assembled right from the building process of the machine. This results in a lot of time savings and, moreover, manipulation mistakes are avoided.
If this all sounds interesting, but also like an expensive option, it isn’t. When the part is properly designed the price is comparable to a conventional process – although the performance and beauty are different. However, industrial 3D printing is not here to substitute traditional machining and moulding/casting methods. What AM brings are synergies and new opportunities, and it will empower us to use every technology available at its very best.
We can now use conventional machining when solid or large/medium parts are required, but we can also simply construct a highly complex element which brings considerable advantages to the end user. Any part produced by AM will still need post processing with a conventional technology such as sanding, grinding, shot peening, machining, surface treatment and painting, but it comes at little or no additional cost to traditional manufacturing.
Indeed, very soon we will see hybrid manufacturing workshops where 3D printers and conventional machining operations share the manufacturing process. After 45 years in the industry my own family has learnt the value of innovation and we see AM as a very real technology to solve customer problems and requirements. Is our industry ready for the manufacturing revolution from 3D printing? I believe it’s less a case of being ready and more a case of saying if we don’t adopt these new technologies, we will lose the advantage – and that could cost us dearly.