RAMLAB unveils ‘world’s first class-approved’ 3D printed ship propeller for Damen tug boat

Rotterdam’s RAMLAB has been busy over the past year, testing out additive manufacturing for various shipbuilding applications. Located at the Port of Rotterdam, the largest port in all of Europe, the 3D printing lab’s focus has primarily been on the production of ship propellers.

Earlier this year, and in partnership with Autodesk, RAMLAB unveiled its first 3D printed ship component: a small-scale prototype for a ship’s propeller which was made using a combination of wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM) and subtractive machining and grinding processes.

Now, RAMLAB is making headlines for the completion of “the world’s first class approved 3D printed propeller.” Measuring 1,350 mm in diameter, the 3D printed ship propeller was realized in partnership with Autodesk, Damen Shipyards Group, Promarin, and Bureau Veritas.

Still a prototype, the 3D printed ship propeller (called WAAMpeller) is made from a Nickel Aluminum Bronze (NAB) alloy and was manufactured using WAAM 3D printing and a welding process provided by Dutch company Valk Welding.

It’s design was helped along using Autodesk software and was based on a triple-blade setup developed by Promarin, a German propeller shop. In fact, the propeller’s structure is the same as those used on Damen’s Stan Tug Boat 1606.

Damen’s Stan Tug 1606

(Images: Damen)

According to the RAMLAB, the propeller’s production was not a simple or straightforward process, namely because of the material it was working with as well as the propeller’s complex design.

Keez Custers, Project Engineer in Damen’s R&D department, commented on the material’s steep learning curve: “This is because 3D printed materials are built up layer by layer. As a consequence, they display different physical properties in different directions—a characteristic known as anisotropy. Steel or casted materials, on the other hand, are isotropic— they have the same properties in all directions.”

Working with a NAB alloy meant that the propeller developers had to put the material through an extensive testing process in order to assure that its properties when printed complied with standards set out by certification agency Bureau Veritas.

“Material characterization and mechanical testing have been an important part of this project,” commented Wei Ya, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Twente and a researcher at RAMLAB.

“We have to make sure that the material properties meet the needs of the application. Material toughness, for example—ensuring that the propeller is able to absorb significant impact without damage.”

Additionally, because the propeller features a double-curved structure and certain overhanging components, even translating the 3D model into a 3D printable product was a challenging and somewhat tricky process.

The 3D printed propeller prototype, which weighs a total of 400 kg, will be used primarily for demonstration purposes. “We start production of a second propeller with class approval later next month—using all the lessons we have learned over the past few months,” said Custers. “We are aiming to install this second one onto one of our tugs later this year.”

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