A 3D printer aboard a ship

By Matt jones   

Digital Transformation Manufacturing 3D printing Additive Manufacturing manufacturer manufacturing

Could 3D printing disrupt parts manufacturing for ships in the future?

University of New Brunswick’s Marine Additive Manufacturing Centre (MAMC) focus heavily on 3D printing and where it could be applied to find efficiencies in the shipbuilding industry. 

At the Centre’s facility – in a Saint John metal fabrication plant – a roughly million-dollar printer efficiently turns powdered metals into replacement parts for ships. The MAMC’s leadership says 3D printing could revolutionize maintenance and repairs on ships.

“With these new 15 warships that Canada is going to build in the next 25 years, we know that each of these ships are going to be more advanced than the last one,” says Dr. Mohsen Mohammadi, the director of the MAMC. “If we have a metal 3D printer with different types of metal powder on board the ship, when there’s a damaged part they can print a replacement part. The cost savings for the Navy, in terms of sending a ship back to the shores of Newfoundland or Halifax or Vancouver, is immense.”

For the uninitiated, 3D printing uses digital design files to create objects by gradually adding thin layers of material. Plastic 3D printing has become fairly common, but 3D printing metal is somewhat more novel. The entire approach is often referred to as ‘additive manufacturing’ because you are actually building on to something, rather than the more traditional approach of carving metal parts out of the material.


While the most immediate route would be to place a 3D printer on the ship itself, Mohammadi does have an alternate solution as well. 

“The second idea that we have is what if we have 3D printers in isolated areas of the North, for example on Resolute Bay, which is sitting at 76 degrees north,” says Mohammadi. “If you have good internet communications with them, we can control these machines from the shores of Halifax or Newfoundland or Vancouver. The other aspect of this, I’m envisioning that we can actually involve the Indigenous communities that we have in the North to help us protect our shores.”

The MAMC’s Lockheed Martin research chair, Hamed Asgari, also told CBC News of a further concept he is researching – 4D printing. In that case, the product is created with dynamic materials that can change as a result of temperature, pressure or humidity. This would allow the manufacture of ship hulls and other components that would adjust to shifting water temperatures or pressure.

“These alloys are intelligent, they are smart, they are able to change their shape,” said Asgari.

Mohammadi says that most newer ships, such as the aforementioned 15 new warships, would very easily adopt new technologies and should be able to house a 3D printer with little problem. However, the idea of satellite support units providing 3D printed parts in smaller communities could also service older ships that travel those water as well. To say nothing of how this concept could be applied in the wider marine industry.

“Adopting new technologies always incorporates some disruption to our previous practice,” says Mohammadi on the potential impacts of 3D printing on the traditional ship building industry. “It is inherent in new technologies that they disrupt the current way that we do things. Do we want this to be disruptive? It’s actually a double edged sword – we want to change the way we do things to make them more efficient. But we need to train the workforce. If we can actually adopt these new technologies they will make us more efficient, but we will need to modify our training, we will need to be agile in forming the minds of our technicians, engineers and researchers.”

It may very well be inevitable that 3D printing (and other potential new technologies) will radically change the way that industries such as shipbuilding and parts manufacturing operate. However, Mohammadi notes that in his view this technology is still very much in its infancy, with a lot more room to grow. In fact, that’s one of the factors that led to the creation of the MAMC. And the MAMC can help companies determine whether they need to start investing in 3D printing technology.

“The small and medium enterprises active in marine shipbuilding, defense, aerospace and naval aviation, they can bring their projects to us because we brought down the obstacles for them to practice this new technology,” says Mohammadi. “They can practice, they can see the benefits of this technology. There are pros and cons to it, for sure, and they will see if this technology can help them, can make them more agile or more flexible and make them more productive.”

The primary challenge that Mohammadi sees in the adoption of 3D printing in the marine sector (and beyond) is certification. New technologies need to be certified, through extensive testing, simulation and modelling and ensuring that results are consistent and reliable.

“If we see all of these together, with regulatory bodies for different sectors, I think we are also with this method bringing down the obstacles for small and medium enterprises to adopt these new technologies,” says Mohammadi.

Mohammadi is quick to thank UNB’s Office of Research Services for their support in the establishment of the MAMC, as well as technical partners such as JD Irving Group and Lockheed Martin Canada. He also notes that the work of his own students and postdoctoral fellows has been invaluable.

“If we want to adopt new technologies, we need these researchers to actually help us discover these new things,” says Mohammadi. “So their hard work has to be acknowledged.”


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