Additive Manufacturing and the Aftermarket
AMT Tech Report Selection by Stephen LaMarca:
Riddle me this: What if, instead of going to the dealership parts department to pick up a replacement whatever for your car, you download a STEP file for the part you need directly off the manufacturer’s website? “There’s growing awareness among consumers around the use of 3D printing technology to print spare parts, whether it be for an older office printer or a project car. This is now extending to all manner of manufactured goods, with manufacturers realising the benefits of holding a virtual stockpile as opposed to a physical one.”
The shift from supplying a physical spare part to a digital file may seem like a giant leap for mankind, but it’s one that holds benefits for the manufacturer and end-user alike.
David Bullock, a director of Rapid 3D, points out that digitisation is an unstoppable force and the 3D printing of spare parts is no exception. “Initially, 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – was used to create prototypes of designs for testing prior to manufacture. Today, it’s being used to produce spare parts for the aftermarket and, in some instances, actual parts that are used in the manufacturing process.”
There’s growing awareness among consumers around the use of 3D printing technology to print spare parts, whether it be for an older office printer or a project car. This is now extending to all manner of manufactured goods, with manufacturers realising the benefits of holding a virtual stockpile as opposed to a physical one.
The ability to print spare parts on-demand will significantly change the supply chain, in the view of EOS’s Nicolas Dill, who says it’s becoming increasingly commonplace for people to ask 3D printing suppliers whether they can print a spare or customised part for them.
Not only is additive manufacturing able to print spare parts, according to Dill it’s going to be a key player going forward.
He highlights three trends that are driving changes in the aftermarket: digitisation of the market is becoming necessary to remain competitive; there is increased focus on after-sales and services – and convenient access to consumables and parts is key; and increased environmental awareness is pushing manufacturers to extend the lifetime of their products by having replacement parts readily available for years after their manufacture.
All of this supports the integral role that 3D printing has to play in the aftermarket going forward, says Bullock. “The creation of a centralised digital file catalogue for spare parts and consumables for manufactured items will enable the production of these when and where required, virtually on demand. Customers will no longer have to dispose of an item simply because the part that they require is no longer in manufacture, and turnaround time on repairs will be significantly decreased.”
Dill goes on to highlight how business models will need to adapt, saying that there will be a shift away from stocking physical parts to supplying digital services. The ability to print spare parts will simply become part of the business model. In future, additive manufacturers will download the digital file for that part and print it. They will also be able to supply manufacturers themselves with parts, where required.
Naturally, as with any digitisation journey, there will be challenges. Dill highlights some of the obstacles in his video.
The main challenge is to build a virtual inventory strategy, and the best time to start this is early in the product development process. However, today’s digital spare parts catalogue needs to reflect past as well as current products. Some of these parts may have been out of production for a long time. In addition, today’s parts are increasingly complex and customised. But when you consider that all of these parts need to be available wherever the products are sold around the world, this poses a massive aftermarket challenge. Getting those parts to the customer poses logistical challenges and entails potential time delays, not to mention the cost of having and storing such a large physical inventory. Sharing a digital file for a specific part with an additive manufacturer removes some of these challenges.
As mentioned earlier, traditionally, additive manufacturing has been used to create prototypes or small obscure parts. The technology’s more recent move into the aftermarket can be used to solve challenges in the later life cycle of products. While no minimum order is required, the technology can also be used to fill larger orders too.
There are three key requirements in order for additive manufacturing to succeed in the aftermarket, according to Dill:
The ability to cost-effectively manufacture single orders and small spare parts.
The ability to manage both a digital inventory and the production process. Additive manufacturers need to figure out how to digitise a catalogue of spare parts while protecting their IP, and how to manage that inventory.
It’s key to analyse TCO and only produce cost-effective spare parts as there are instances where additive manufacturing might prove more expensive than buying the original part.
“South African companies in particular stand to benefit enormously from the benefits of digital inventory. The most common challenge experienced is digitising parts that are well suited to the technology and optimising the part geometry for additive manufacture,” concludes Bullock.