Marine Parts On-demand


At the busiest port in Europe, 105,000 inland vessels and over 29,000 sea-going have sailed in and out carrying 461,2 million tonnes of cargo over the past year. Once hailed as the largest port in the world, the Port of Rotterdam is on a mission, enlisting robotics, advanced manufacturing and startups, to earn itself another moniker as the world’s smartest port.

The Port of Rotterdam is no stranger to innovation. In 1966 when the idea of a 40ft steel box with swing doors used to contain cargo, an invention that seems so simple and essential now, was first presented, the Port of Rotterdam was one of the first to take these now ubiquitous shipping containers seriously. It’s continuing that pioneering spirit by partnering with organisations across its ‘innovation ecosystem’ to look at ways in which the marine industry and logistics can be made smarter.

Part of this strategy is RAMLAB, a dedicated additive manufacturing facility established in November last year for the manufacture of on-demand certified metal parts. The first-of-its-kind lab is the result of a partnership between Port of Rotterdam, InnovationQuarter and RDM Makerspace who propose that if large metal parts could be manufactured on demand and on site, it could reduce lengthy lead times and inventory costs significantly. A consortium of over 20 companies has been working together to share their expertise and explore the use of additive through a handful of case studies looking at typical marine parts. The most recent was a yearlong project exploring the manufacture of a ship propeller through hybrid techniques in partnership with Autodesk.

“Things have always been done in a certain way and unless you’re a pioneer or innovator you don’t always change them,” Kelvin Hamilton, Autodesk explained. “We are stronger for it [the consortium] because not one company or person knows everything but we can each pitch in and get somewhere faster.”

Prototyping of hollow propeller blade.

Autodesk started by designing and building a single propeller blade to prove the process of Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM), a technology similar to welding, which leverages a Valk Welding robotic arm to manufacture large parts unrestricted by a build area and can then be finished by machining. “A good fit for what is already being used in the industry,” explains Kelvin, WAAM uses a metal wire feed which means no need for AM specific powders, no material residue and the port’s engineers can continue to use the same materials they’re used to working with.

That familiarity has been key in RAMLAB’s success so far. Up until recently the marine industry has been slow to adopt 3D printing but with industrial spare parts being a crucial piece in its ecosystem, it could stand to benefit massively. Starting by choosing parts that don’t necessarily lend themselves to additive, (the propeller design hasn’t yet been adapted to exploit the benefits of AM) the consortium’s initial goal is to show what is possible with this technology.

“There are always early adopters and of course it’s a sector known for being a bit conservative but the strength of the lab is that we are open and invite many people here to come and see what’s happening,” Vincent Wegener, Managing Director, RAMLAB explained. “When they see it with their own eyes, they start seeing the potential.”

The first propeller was a proof on concept in stainless steel and is now being prepared for material tests, most likely in Nickel Aluminium Bronze, a material used in current marine parts due to its proven corrosion resistance, before it’s declared sea-ready. The marine industry isn’t as concerned with weight reduction as other industries such as aerospace so the team have chosen to build the propeller as a solid component but Kelvin says it’s looking at generatively designed or lattice-filled alternatives for future investigation. Once material testing is complete, the team will start building a sea-worthy version, which will be placed on a real sea-going ship to collect tangible data. If all goes well, it could stay on board for an extended period to test its longevity and resistance.

Final as-built propeller.

Certified sea-ready?

Once parts are built, the next challenge is certification and risk management organisation, Lloyd’s Register, is working with RAMLAB to set up the certification process for WAAM. Currently there are no best practices or standardised guidelines for AM and the organisation has been looking specifically at the third-party certification of AM parts and components since 2015 in partnership with TWI.

“The RAMLAB project represents an exciting step forward for the industry in realising the potential of additive manufacturing processes such as WAAM,” Tom White, Innovation Owner at Lloyd’s Register explained. “At RAMLAB, our specialists and representatives are with designers, end-users and manufacturers across several industries, providing guidance and working in collaboration on technical and assurance considerations throughout the product lifecycle.”

Lloyd’s Register has published Guidance Notes for Additive Manufacturing and the Additive Manufacturing Roadmap, which chart the course for the safe use of AM components for safety-critical assets and offer guidance to the industry. They’re now using that knowledge to bring AM components and processes to the market safely. At RAMLAB, it’s looking at how the WAAM process can be monitored to ensure reliable and repeatable products.

Tom continued: “In providing assurance and certification to these manufacturing processes and products, we are supporting our partners to develop a robust, tailored approach in each case to align with the specifics of the process, service conditions and taking into consideration the production routes.”

Inspecting part form during build.

A hub of innovation

RAMLAB is part of a much wider narrative of innovation within the Port of Rotterdam with several startups and new technologies located there including sustainable material developer, MgAubel; the AIS Buddy app which provides real time information for inland shippers; and futuristic-looking aquadrones called Waste Sharks, which can remove up to 500 kilos of waste from the water.

RAMLAB’s vision of a connected on-demand future, this will be enabled by a digital repository of part files which can be sent directly to ports with their own metal 3D printers and produced within a matter of days rather than the weeks or months taken to deliver a traditionally manufactured part. Internal ship components which could benefit from less material consumption or welded connections for oil rigs that can be consolidated into one part are just a few areas in which WAAM could prove beneficial.

It’s still in the early stages but there has allegedly already been interest from ports around the world wanting to be a part of this digital ecosystem, which Vincent says would create something like a “Spotify of spare parts”. Port of Rotterdam wants to be a trailblazer in this and lead the way for other ports to this vision and bring the marine industry inline with industry 4.0.

Vincent added: “We are part of a bigger strategy from the Port of Rotterdam to be the smartest port in the world. We are just one piece of the puzzle.”

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Source: TCT Magazine


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