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3D printing makes inroads into yacht building.

3D printing is happening in boat construction—now.

3D printing is happening in boat construction—now.

I’m not old enough to remember the fiberglass revolution, but I’ve heard from many an old salt that trepidation about this newfangled material ran high. Generations of men became highly skilled wooden boatbuilders under the tutelage of their fathers, who learned from their fathers. They were making an honest living. Why would they change?

It’s been over 50 years since these declarations were made and quickly snuffed out by fiberglass. And while boat manufacturing has benefited from new technologies like vacuum resin infusion and embraced materials like carbon fiber, today’s vessels are still conceived and built in essentially the same way.

Generally, manufacturers tend to hold fast to legacy and tradition. The marine industry’s willfulness is an integral part of its appeal. Lamentably, the system developed in production boatbuilding left manufacturers holding the bag during the last economic downturn. With vast sums invested for R&D, molds, and materials—and shops full of high-end products for commissioning—many builders were forced to close. As the industry recovers, looking to tech as a disrupter is more appealing than ever.

“The industry has to change its approach towards designing and building ships completely to stay competitive and economic. The build is labor-intensive and hindered by production methods,” said Geert Schouten, director at Shipbuilder. Schouten runs the Netherlands-based software company and is among the leading proponents of 3D print manufacturing that he feels will turn boatbuilding as we know it on its head.

My first thought on this is one shared by those I’ve spoken to about it: 3D printers are not large enough to print a hull. “That’s based on the current possibilities for designing and building ships,” Schouten said, adding, “with a different approach, many parts of a ship can be 3D-printed.”

The points made by Schouten and other proponents of 3D printing are hard to ignore. The digitalization of the entire process matched with robotization means significantly fewer components, tooling, and machining. Volume customization and design changes made in rapid real time can save the builder time and money on materials, and cut back on waste. Algorithmic software runs through innumerable calculations and figures out the most efficient way to construct components, potentially removing the need to physically build prototypes and 1:1 scale models. Thus, production times can be cut down from months to hours in some cases.

The materials are an upgrade as well. Thermoplastics with names like Ultem 9085 and Windform have trickled down from the aerospace industry, where they have been tested in the most rigorous conditions, and are now standardized. They are strong, durable, and demonstrate a superior strength-to-weight ratio as compared to what a traditional fiberglass build can offer. If it’s good enough for NASA, it’s pretty tough stuff.

A few builders are leading the charge. Hanse Yachts, one of the largest sailboat producers in Europe, has developed a 66-foot 3D printer and continues to test materials. In Sicily, boutique manufacturer Livrea is well on its way to producing a 3D-printed 26-foot sailboat with the goal of racing it 4,000 miles across the Atlantic in the 2019 Mini Transat. Hinckley Yachts is utilizing 3D printing to create titanium hardware.

I think of the workforce: How will today’s jobs in boatbuilding be transformed in tomorrow’s market with this new technology? Time will tell.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.