How do you build a ship’s propeller? Propellers come in all sizes. The really fun ones are as big as a house! (Figure 1‑1) And many of them are a single piece of metal. No seams. No bolts. No welds. A bronze alloy that just began its life in the shape of a perfect propeller. So how do you build a perfect propeller the size of a house?
Figure 1‑1: Maersk Triple E Propeller
Many large propellers are actually a single piece of bronze alloy. They are formed by casting the entire propeller in one go. In casting, you pour molten metal into a mold. Let the metal cool, and out pops a solid metal part.
Things are slightly different when you need to cast something the size of a house. You have to account for several new complications.
Check out this video which highlights the process of casting and machining a finished propeller blade.
Figure 2‑2: MASSIVE Propeller Casting
We know that casting involves pouring liquid metal into a mold. Backup a second. How did we get the shape for that mold? The first step in any casting is making a pattern. This is a wooden shape that we use to form a mold. These patterns involve some combination of computer controlled machining and hand work to create an absolutely flawless shape. Have you noticed how complex the shape of a propeller is? Not a straight line anywhere on the entire thing. Curves, all of it. And always changing shape. All this adds up to hours and hours of work for that final, flawless pattern.
Figure 3‑1: Making Propeller Pattern
Propellers are big industry. They are hard to envision. Harder to make, and hardest yet to get perfect. When you catch a glimpse of that shining bronze at the stern of a ship, don’t take it for granted. In those whirling blades, I see the endless cycles towards the pursuit of complete perfection.