The America’s Cup has always been a laboratory for new technological developments, even more so since the foiling catamaran revolution. Nowhere else in sailing will budgets allow entire teams of engineers and designers to work for years, optimizing every little part and every process involved in designing and building a boat.
Now, 3D printing has arrived on the scene, rapidly growing into an important weapon in the combat for “the Auld Mug,” the America’s Cup trophy. For insiders, additive manufacturing is the more precise term, indicating how the process really works: 3D design files are sent to a production facility where the item is produced automatically according to specifications in the file. Specialized machines are able to add micro-layers of material, one on top of the other, fusing them together with lasers until the final piece emerges.
For quite some time, materials have been limited to plastics and composites, but now even metals can be processed using additive manufacturing. Fine metal powder is added in layers of about 0.05 millimeters.
This new manufacturing method makes it possible to produce components with great accuracy and with specifications impossible with normal metal manufacturing. Production can be rapid and limited to only one item, if that’s what’s needed.
Hydraulics are core components on America’s Cup catamarans, and strong, lightweight efficient parts are in high demand. Additive manufacturing is well suited to exactly that.
Time is also a very important parameter for any professional sailing team. With additive manufacturing, designers can create a part ready for testing on the water the next day.
Some America’s Cup teams report cost savings, while others experience higher costs, probably depending on how the technology is implemented.
America’s Cup teams are often reluctant to reveal what happens behind the scenes. However, hydraulics and controls manager Jonathan Nicholls from the Artemis engineering team shed some light on how they work with this new tool.
We print brackets, custom electronics housings and user interface components.
“Three dimensional printing is currently used in America’s Cup yachts due to the fierce attention to weight, materials and manufacturing processes,” he told NauticExpo e-mag.
“It allows engineers to design very efficient components and structures. The advantages of 3D printing are the same for us as they are for everyone—more open design space, more efficient designs, faster turn-around.”
“Currently we print brackets, custom electronics housings and user interface components like buttons, switches or levers. We save a lot of weight and manufacturing time with these parts; they’ve been very good performers. We also use 3D printing for mock-up components, while the real components are being manufactured,” he added.
What About Limitations?
Nicholls explained: “This is a relatively new technology. Three dimensional printing has a small experience and knowledge base in this sector, which of course slows adoption compared to more conventional methods. [Lack of] familiarity with the technology is a limitation, as it is with any new technology. I see this being a big area of focus for the next America’s Cup cycle.”
Lack of familiarity with the technology is a limitation. Cost is definitely higher as well.
Cost is definitely higher as well. “Complex components like hydraulic manifolds can be twice the cost because of the combined cost of producing the 3D part and then the post machining, which can be as much as machining the entire component itself. Understanding the cost benefit of when to use 3D printing for these components is definitely something we could become more familiar with.”
Nicholls explained that their goal is to build a boat that will win the America’s Cup. A secondary goal is to keep pressing to learn and apply new technologies like 3D printing. “It keeps us relevant and contributing back to the greater engineering community. I’m sure every America’s Cup yacht moving forward will have more 3D printed content than its predecessors. The extent to which 3D printing is used lies in us investing time in understanding how to fully exploit it. The teams that do invest in 3D printing will have a distinct competitive advantage, no doubt!”