3D printing or additive manufacturing is one of the technologies we hear a lot about these days. Even though there are really cool things happening today with 3D printing, the business value for our industry is not quite there…yet. The last few years I have blogged about 3D printing and how it has the potential to change the way we design and build ships.
However, before we are using 3D printing to build custom parts, sub-assemblies, super structures and eventually an entire shipJ, we will be exposed to 3D printing via equipment suppliers. These could be pumps, heat exchangers, valves, flanges, gaskets, bolts and even special tools. This got me thinking about how the suppliers will protect their Intellectual Property (IP) to support this new strategy and how this is similar to the challenges the music industry went through. If suppliers do not have a way to protect their IP, there is a low probability we will have an ecosystem where we can print suppliers’ parts at the shipyard or even be able to support a strategy of being able to print parts while at sea in the case of a breakdown during a voyage.
Will 3D Printing Disruption Parallel Music and Entertainment?
When the music and entertainment were disrupted with the proliferation of MP3s and AVIs those industries had to change their business. Even though they initially fought to keep the status quo they were forced to change to meet the realities of what their customers wanted.
This change in business model and opportunity is similar to where I see 3D printing for equipment suppliers today. MP3s are merely just files that anyone can copy and share with anyone at no cost. This is what worried the music executives. They saw MP3s as a threat to cut into their margins and reduce profitability. This would be no different from equipment suppliers if they provided STL, VRML, etc. files which are typical files used for 3D printing. How could an equipment supplier be profitable if once they sent the STL file, the customer could print 1 or 10000 as well as share it with other yards by simply passing the STL file? Again, the same problem with MP3s.
Disruptive Technology enables New Business Models
As with all disruptive technologies there needs to be a reimagined business strategy. I am not sure what it will be in the future but it might follow the iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and the hundreds of other music store’s strategies. (For the music lovers: There are still some changes we will see to ensure artists continue to make more $ per track which people listen to.)
For example, there could be a new company that has a platform to enable any shipyard to print several different supplier’s equipment items. This new company would supply a shipyard with a 3D printer or several 3D printers which have different specifications depending on what needs to be printed. This company will partner with several suppliers the same way Apple (iTunes), Google (Google Play), Spotify, etc. have done with music artists (record labels). When a shipyard needs a specific asset, they will request the item from the 3D printing platform and then 3D print the item. The IP does not leave the platform and a list of what items, where printed, and how many is easily tracked by the platform. The shipyard will get charged what they print and the supplier will get their portion of what was charged. Again, this is no different than the music platforms.
This strategy would still require suppliers to “trust” the 3D printing platform company as they will be the one with the suppliers IP as well as monitoring the number of prints. However, this is no different than how music artists are “trusting” Apple, Google, etc.
3D Printing as a Service is not that easy
I have no illusions that 3D Printing as a service is as easy as the music industry. There are many challenges that needs to be overcome:
- Multi-purpose 3D printing machines
- Variable throughput of items (when building engine room there will be more demand for items)
- 3D printing machine maintenance and frequent calibration
- How to ensure quality of 3D prints
- Requirements on where raw materials for the 3D printer are sourced from
- How to handle serial numbers
- How does the warranty work (the supplier or the 3D printing platform service provider)
- And many, many more.
These challenges do seem difficult today, but I do see us overcoming them in the future.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a very interesting technology which the shipbuilding industry will be able to extract a lot of benefit from. However, 3D printing is too immature for us to leverage it at a significant scale in the short term.
When this disruptive technology finally matures (which it is rapidly) we will see new opportunities on how we procure and order our equipment from suppliers. The ability to 3D print our equipment when we need it without having to deal with long lead times or supplier manufacturing capacity will improve the efficiency and cost of building a ship.
It is uncertain what new business strategies will evolve around 3D printing in the manufacturing space. 3D printing as a service is a very interesting strategy that is being used successfully for consumer 3D printing. Click here to learn more. Time will tell how 3D printing will change our industry.