3D Printing Aboard Ships? How One Technology Is Changing the Future.
Imagine you’re steaming across the Pacific Ocean on a container ship on a great circle course to the SanFrancisco sea buoy. The sea is confused and you’ve been running the ship’s slow speed diesel engine hard to meet your ETA. The vibration reverberating through the hull gently trembling you to sleep when, without warning, the sound stops. Minutes later, the Chief Engineer calls to inform you that the PLS Dosage Pump supply valve has failed and your ship is now dead in the water, a seriously overpriced pontoon, until you can get the part to fix it. As Captain, you don’t know what a PLS pump is but, from the grumpy tone of the chief’s voice, you are sure he doesn’t have a spare or any way of making the complicated part in the ship’s machine shop. Your shipment will be delayed, money and resources will be lost and the office will be calling soon on the satellite phone asking for answers.
Welcome to 3D printing. A vessel’s computers may one day have a database of 3-Dimensional CAD (Computer Aided Design) images of each and every part on the ship, from nuts to bolts, all the way up to complex engine parts. If any of these should fail, the printer could have a suitable, made-to-spec replacement in a matter of minutes to hours.
“3D printing has the potential to change everything” says a former ship engineer. First used in the late 1980′s, this technology has been called Rapid Manufacturing, a term coined by inventor S. Scott Crump who later went on to start Stratasys I has also been called additive manufacturing or stereolithography, more complicated terms for similar technology created at about the same time by 3D Systems [NYSE:DDD] founder Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull. While both companies have traded publicly for a decade or more, the technology has gained traction in recent years and has launched both companies into an organic growth spurt, prompting acquisitions and strong numbers, with little to no debt. While these two companies are the leaders in market cap, the entire publicly traded market cap for 3D printing companies is comparatively small, roughly 2 Billion USD and many companies that work in this space are still privately held.
Today, 3D Printers have evolved to make a variety of objects using a laser or extruder (the material output part of the printer, best described as a futuristic hot glue gun) that move along an X, Y and Z axis to build an object in three dimensions, layer by layer, sometimes only microns thick at a time, depending on the desired resolution of the object. This method eliminates a lot of wasted materials, as any leftover powdered substrate can be immediately used on another project, alleviating the need for injection molding, setup costs, cutting, sanding, drilling and having scraps of material left over, as is common with traditional manufacturing methods. The most impressive part: economies of scale cease to be an issue as costs for single parts become standardized in relation to the costs of the material being used.
This technology is not simply for modeling and prototyping, either. TV personality Jay Leno uses a 3D printer to make custom and hard-to-find parts from scratch for his collection of classic cars. Entrepreneurs have been using these printers in a myriad of ways, and the trend is speeding up. Organovo, a San Diego based firm headed by CEO Keith Murphy, has high hopes for the future of the technology as a medical tool with surprising speed. “We currently produce organic tissues grown from cell samples, which can be used as a human analog for pharmaceutical drug discovery and development. The printing process can take as little as 12-24 hours. This can allow for more relevant results and less animal involvement than traditional research methods.” said Murphy in a recent interview. Organovo was recently listed on the OTC market under the ticker [OTCQB:ONVO]. According to Murphy “We started out in late 2008 and received $3 Million in angel investment. Since mid 2011, we have doubled in size, and recently secured another $8 Million in private funds, in conjunction with the public listing”.
In the near future companies like Organovo will likely harvest a grown adults’ stem cells from a simple blood draw, use a specialized 3D printer to build an organic, polymeric scaffolding in the shape of the organ or tissue that needs to be replicated, and literally grow a kidney, heart, lungs, within a matter of days or weeks. In theory, pluripotent stem cells can be harnessed safely from the intended transplant recipients, without damage to any unborn fetuses. They offer patients no chance of organ rejection due to their self origin, and bypass the need for endless waiting lists where patients may never find themselves at the top before it’s too late. Imagine a world where replaceable organs were available to everyone who needed one. It may be coming faster than you think.