Spare parts Are Just a Print Away for Maersk
Staff posted on July 14, 2014 |

What happens when a critical engine part on a tanker vessel breaks down? Dealing with equipment malfunctions is a daily challenge for the crew on board.

The logistics are further complicated by the fact that tankers don’t stick to a schedule. Markus Kuhn, Purchasing Manager at Group Procurement Marine, explains: “Two thirds of our fleet is on spot trade, so customers charter a vessel not knowing exactly where the cargo will be discharged – it could be anywhere from Venezuela to Houston.” It all adds up to a very costly and complex logistical operation, with a huge carbon footprint involved. board. And for the procurement team on the ground, the job is to get the parts on to the vessel as fast as possible. This involves a race to locate the part, get it to the next port-of-call and then charter a boat to make the delivery (due to their dangerous cargo, tankers are usually forbidden from entering into the main port area).

An experiment now under way aims to tackle these challenges with 3D printing. The idea is to install a 3D on a tanker vessel to allow the crew to ‘print off’ parts they need.

Kuhn explains: “The ideal scenario is that you order a spare part from the manufacturer, they email over a digital blueprint, the crew presses a button and it prints out.”

Printing On Board

3D printers use laser beams to melt down a raw material, building up the product layer upon layer. In recent years the technology has developed to allow printing in plastic and metal, resulting in a flood of interest from some of the world’s biggest companies which are using it to speed up production and create complex, lightweight parts at a fraction of the cost.

Martha Rehnberg at Group Procurement Marine, who is driving the project with fellow students at Copenhagen Business School, believes 3D printing could revolutionise the supply chain. “Today you can print very complex parts you never imagined could be printed before. All you need is the 3D blueprint.”

It’s not yet known how far the technology could be used on board, but even printing a few spare parts would have a major impact on supply chain costs. “It can cost up to USD 5,000 just to get one part on board a vessel. 3D printing would eliminate costs of warehouse and packing, airfreight to the port, customs clearance and chartering of the delivery ship,” says Kuhn. 

Limitless possibilities 

Being a very new technology means there are many unknowns, including how to license products from suppliers. The plan is to team up with manufacturers to develop the technology in partnerships. Hans Oxholm Mortensen, Senior Manager at MAN Diesel & Turbo which supplies engine parts to Maersk, is enthusiastic about the idea: “We see it as an opportunity to collaborate with Maersk on 3D printing. Either you hop on the train and start learning, or you stay behind and watch the train leave.

Materials are another issue. Some 90% of engine parts are metal, but the days of having metal printers on board could be some way off yet. “The technology is there, but it’s a matter of cost,” says Rehnberg. “Today a metal printer costs about USD 1 million, compared to USD 25,000 for an industrial plastic one.”

But if the trial proves a success, 3D printing could be used to tackle similar challenges across the whole Group, such as equipment breakdowns on drilling rigs or oil platforms. Peter Steen Olesen, Head of Group Procurement, Marine Tankers believes that the possibilities for using the new technology are limitless. 

“Why transport something when you can print it out on board? We see exciting opportunities for 3D printing to cut carbon footprint and transport costs, and provide on-demand availability. Only imagination sets the limit as to where this technology could go.”


Who uses 3D Printing?

  • General Electric is printing fuel nozzles for jet engines. The nozzles used to be composed of 18 different parts, but now they are just a single piece, making them 25% lighter. 
  • The US Navy uses 3D printers on vessels to print oil caps and drain plugs. 
  • NASA uses 3D printers on space ships, allowing astronauts to print off essential equipment while out in space.

Source: Maersk

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