Will 3D printing make obsolescence obsolete?

Machine spare part obsolescence is a major headache for manufacturers. The stockout costs or consequences of non-available spare parts are invariably higher with longer periods of downtime. As time equals money, in the majority of manufacturing operations maintenance staff take their own approaches to stock management. One such way is the squirrel approach where obsolete parts are gathered for insurance purposes. Some manufacturers look to rationalize their spare part stock profile and often target high-value slow-moving parts, which are usually also the obsolete parts.

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Unfortunately the rapid developments in industrial automation have accelerated the obsolescence process, leading many companies to be caught short. But with the recent burst of 3D printers becoming more accessible to the masses, we have been asking ourselves if the dawn of the 3D printer will eventually make obsolescence obsolete. The advancement in 3D printing could well change the process in which spare parts are managed – if the International Space Station can use a 3D printer to print spare parts, why can’t any other manufacturer in the future?

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3D opportunity for the Department of Defense

At the same time that global hostilities mount, fiscal pressures weigh heavily on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) ability to confront them effectively and efficiently. The challenges are particularly acute in the DoD’s maintenance and supply chain enterprise.

The DoD’s extensive Maintenance Enterprise poses daunting risks (see sidebar, “The Department of Defense Maintenance Enterprise”). Maintenance needs are complex and highly unpredictable even in peacetime. The Department’s current operations require high levels of customization and production of parts in remote locations in low volumes and on tight timelines, imposing high entry barriers for suppliers of traditionally manufactured parts. The consequences are lower operational readiness and sortie rates, higher transportation costs, reduced process predictability, long lead times, and considerable excess inventory and waste.

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3D opportunity: Additive manufacturing paths to performance, innovation, and growth

Additive manufacturing (AM) has exploded into public consciousness over the past several years. More popularly known as “3D printing,” AM is an umbrella term for a group of technologies that creates physical products through the addition of materials (typically layer by layer) rather than by subtraction (e.g., through machining or other types of processing).

DR14_3Dopportunity_1000x1375_cvrStories and perspectives appear in the popular press and technology blogs on a daily basis. Enthusiasts tout the prospect for AM to revolutionize manufacturing industries and the markets they serve. Skeptics point to the relat
ively limited number of uses and materials in current practice and to the relatively small impact these technologies have had outside of a few niches. Critics raise concerns about applications (e.g., 3D printed guns) and the inevitable intellectual property issues that the increasing adoption of AM technologies will create.

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The 3D printed supply chain: stronger, faster, and more flexible

Most people were introduced to the concept of Additive Manufacturing (AM) for the first time during President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address. This technology, more commonly referred to as 3D printing, is believed by most to be in its relative infancy. What people don’t know is that it has been developing for the past three decades and is just now starting to garner the attention it deserves for the impact it will have on manufacturing operations and traditional supply chains.

My first encounter with 3D Printing was 15 months ago on deployment to Bahrain. ‘While reading New York Times bestseller, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Dr. Peter Diamandis (Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation) and Steven Kotler (bestselling author and science journalist), I was introduced to the technology as one of several that have the potential to solve the world’s greatest problems. They explain that, “Suddenly an invention developed in China can be perfected in India then printed in Brazil on the same day.” (LOC 1369 Kindle)

Working in the supply office of a US Navy Minesweeper helped me realize the vast potential that could be unlocked if we had access to a 3D printer on the ship. Assuming we could print enough parts to justify the initial investment in the technology, we could save time and money on transportation costs, benefit from skilled technical distance support, reduce opportunity cost (the cost incurred when we don’t execute), and increase overall mission readiness. The idea of not having to suffer long lead-times for one-off production runs of legacy parts, items no longer provided through the Navy stock system, intrigued me and I began to investigate the history and capabilities of this technology.

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