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Innovate blog: Will 3D printing change the way we build lifeboats?

by Abigail Batley, Higher Education Innovation Fund Researcher

3D printer printing a model boat in silver filament

Photo: Shutterstock

Just a few years ago, the process of 3D printing – a type of additive manufacturing – seemed strange to most people. But good media coverage and affordable desktop printers have quickly made it popular, with a rise in hobbyist, school and DIY users. Many people believe this is where the capabilities of 3D printing lie: making prototypes, gadgets to fix things, and small figurines. But this barely scratches the surface.

The biggest sector for 3D printing has always been, and still is, the industrial sector. It’s been using 3D printing for over 30 years, with the aerospace industry being the main pioneers of the technology.

What's so good about 3D printing? It has the capability to produce highly complex structures which are near impossible to produce with any other manufacturing method. This allows unlimited opportunities for innovation, and reduces costs and lead times. It gives designers complete freedom and offers engineering benefits such as lighter parts and faster development processes. 

What is the RNLI doing with it?

Shannon class lifeboat in the All-weather Lifeboat Centre

Photo: Steve Lowe

The RNLI is working with a team of engineers and industry specialists to analyse which areas could benefit from 3D printing. We’re looking into producing lifeboat parts with 3D printing, as well as specialised jigs and moulds which could significantly reduce our production times. 

The aim of this research is to save money and increase the efficiency of the RNLI’s design and manufacturing processes. We’re also looking at the advantages and disadvantages of setting up our own 3D printing facility. 

We hope this work will influence the way we think at the RNLI – and inspire people across the organisation to consider 3D printing when they design, build, maintain and support the current and future fleet of lifeboats.

Adidas: Saving time and money

After looking for a faster, more efficient way of prototyping, Adidas turned to 3D printing. It delivered immediate benefits and was quick, accurate and significantly reduced their development process by an average of 5 months per project. 3D printing saved time and money. 

Adidas 4D trainers, the world's first 3D-printed shoe

Photo: 3D Natives

Adidas can now test their 3D-printed prototypes during the early stages of design and development (thanks to advances in technology allowing multi-material prints). This puts them ahead of the game and saves a lot of time, as detailed development can take place much earlier in the process.

The ability to print in a variety of materials and colours also allows Adidas to produce prototypes that accurately simulate their real products. This means tweaks to the design can take place without expensive costs. Adidas had such a demand from internal customers within the company, it invested in a 3D printing facility which runs 24-hours to meet their needs. 

And they didn’t stop there. They saw so much potential in the 3D printing process that they recently released the world’s first 3D-printed shoe

Will lifeboats one day be following suit? We'll keep you posted!