There is a lot of hype around 3D printing, driven by a fascination and imagination of the endless possibilities from this emerging technology. So how will it affect the maritime industry? Will it impose massive new opportunities – or will it be a threat to the global transportation industry?
The technology was invented all the way back in the late 80’s, but has not really taken off until recent years, partly due to patents which have now expired, partly due to a lack of the vast computer power needed to produce the 3D drawings to feed the printers.
As often before, new technologies introduce new opportunities. Amongst those mentioned most in relation the maritime industry are:
- New, faster, cheaper ways to innovate vessel design and production
- The option to print spare parts on board, on demand
However, there is also a major threat being discussed. Namely that if, in the future, consumers can print goods locally on their personal 3D printer, there will be a significant drop in the global transportation need.
Before concluding on threats and opportunities, let us have a look at the current situation – seen through the eyes of a layman.
A) To apply some numbers, Gartner predict that global sales of 3D printers will double from 250.000 units in 2015 to 500.000 in 2016, with the majority of the units costing under 2,500USD (source : http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3139118).
B) Technologies are improving fast. Nevertheless, there are still significant limitations. Some of them being:
- The printed product still suffer from a rough surface that in many situations will need a finishing job
- Operating 3D printers is still not very automated, it requires special skills and manual operations
- While new methods and materials are seen, it is only possible to print one material at a time
Reality is that 3D printers are still mainly used for design work, prototyping, as a faster and cheaper tool than traditional modelling.
C) Actual production, using 3D printing, is increasing, with the aviation and medical industries as the forerunners. Generally speaking, the technology is most suitable for:
- Low volume, specialized productions
- Some complex structures, which are difficult to model with traditional methods
The challenges with 3D printing
So what are the obstacles in the way of a complete disruption to the way we produce and distribute goods today?
In my opinion, the key challenge is not so much in the technology. There are lots of smart people working every day on improving the technologies, so the technical challenges are likely to be resolved within the next 5-10 years, as so many other technical challenges have been.
The big challenges are much more around the business environment. Copyrights. Licenses. If all you need to be able to print your new designer dish brush on your home printer is a 3D drawing – how can that drawing safely be delivered and copyright protected? How can the designer be sure to get his revenue – and avoid that someone just download once and print 10,000 copies?
Let us study a few comparable cases.
- Many of us will remember the days where DVD’s had a region protection code. This was to control when DVD’s where released in different parts of the world. And the conscientious DVD manufacturers would build a chip into their players to respect the region code. But what happened? Soon “region free” DVD players, which did not respect the coding, where seen. And eventually, the region code concept had to be given up
- Another more recent sample is how the music industry has changed. Not many years ago we used to buy physical media. Then came iTunes and others, where you could buy and download music – with a copyright protection. But it didn’t take long before this protection could be bypassed – and today the music industry is more and more based on streaming
The essence of this is that if someone can develop a protection code, there will also be someone who can and will develop a hack for it.
And to throw in another issue – how about warranties? How can the vendor provide warranty for a product you have printed yourself?
Therefore, the big limitation is not the 3D printers themselves, but how a governance can be imposed that can and will protect license rights. Across all vendors, at a global scale. Should we have a global license police – and who would manage that?
My prediction is that technologies will of course evolve and be much improved in the next 5-10 years, and will support prototyping and product development even more than today. It will also find its place in the production line for some goods where it makes sense, due to either low volume, complexity or simple cost of raw materials.
In the maritime industry, it could probably be used for printing some (emergency) spare parts onboard, in a closed vendor / client relation, where the license issue is more controllable. But there are still questions, like how about warranty for a spare part printed onboard? Therefore, in my opinion, it is unlikely it will dominate the spare parts market for many years – but with rather play a niche role.
And for the license / copyright reasons discussed above, I also do not see 3D printing change the world macro economy, and having a large impact on global trade and transportation patterns in a near future.
3D printing is indeed very exciting, and it will surely have its place, but according to my crystal ball, it is not likely to have a dramatic impact on the maritime industry any time soon.