The Speed and Promise of 3D Printing
How facilities managers are using this growing technology to source troublesome parts.
By Kate Rockwood
3D printing has reached an exciting phase — what it can do is catching up to what people imagined it might do. The technology, also known as additive manufacturing, is revolutionizing industries, whether it’s surgeons using highly-detailed prototypes to prep for procedures or aerospace manufacturers building lighter, more fuel-efficient planes.
Additive manufacturing has also led to a major sea change in machine part manufacturing. Rather than needing to store outsized collections of spare parts in warehouses, a digital file of a part can simply be stored on the cloud and, when needed, printed on-demand. That’s a mindset shift that benefits facilities managers by helping untangle supply chain snarls.
“With the recent supply chain disruptions, the availability of parts has been tough. Parts you could get in a couple of days can take 12 to 16 weeks to get,” said Glenn Pierce, Vice President of Solution Design at SDI, a supply chain solution and technology company. “Based on our analytics of our entire MRO spend, by category, across many different business segments, I see clients turning to 3D printing because of those lead times.”
3D printers can print objects within hours, instead of the days it might take using traditional manufacturing processes. These printers are also more accessible through a greater number of suppliers. Both of which can reduce lead times and the need for expensive storage. Considering that parts management can account for as much as 25% of asset downtime, according to SDI, that’s a major bonus for FMs.
“The fact that you can digitize a part and print it on demand makes it more readily accessible,” said Steve Tracey, Executive Director of Penn State’s Center for Supply Chain Research.
The Evolution of 3D Printing
Despite all the attention 3D printing is getting these days, it’s not a new technology. 3D printing was first developed in the 1980s as a way to create faster prototypes, still a major use for the process.
“Somebody thought, ‘What if we could take material and apply it a layer at a time all the way down to the molecular level and make it come out of thin air?’” Tracey said. “That was the basic concept.”
Tracey compared the difference between traditional (subtractive) manufacturing and additive manufacturing to the difference between creating a sculpture and building a sandcastle. With traditional manufacturing, you start with a block of a material and strip pieces away to create the object. With 3D printing, you add a material, a layer at a time to make the object. The end result is a process that is more flexible — you don’t need to reinvent the mold, but simply tweak a digital design — and creates less waste.
Much like plasma TVs or computers, though, 3D printing didn’t really take off until the cost of the printers tumbled (largely due to expiring patents) and the technology became more advanced.
“The early version of 3D printers didn’t do much and weren’t that interesting, but now you can do very sophisticated things with it,” Tracey said. “Early on, you could only print with polymers; today you can print with just about anything — even food and human tissue.”
Promise and Practice
For FMs, one of the greatest advantages of 3D printing is the ability to more easily source parts.
That’s especially true for older and obsolete parts, Pierce said. He points to the struggles that clients with older buildings face when a part breaks down. Something as simple as a broken door hinge gets complicated when that door is from the early 1900s.
“You won’t be able to get that same hinge,” he said. “In some cases, you’d have to replace the whole door. It’s easier to 3D print that piece.”
Not only that, but 3D printing allows you to improve upon old designs. As long as you have the specs or files for a part, you can recreate it, but you’re not tied to creating that part in the same way or with the same material. For example, additive manufacturing allows you to print multiple, moving parts into a single piece, which can potentially cut down on material costs and assembly time.
At the moment, many FMs are not 3D printing parts onsite themselves, but outsourcing this task to third-party companies — sometimes the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) — to handle the printing, Tracey said. While that isn’t as fast as printing the piece in-house, it can still be a quicker turnaround. 3D printing is an especially good choice for costly or critical parts that are needed to avoid machine downtime.
Whether a 3D-printed part is higher quality or lasts longer depends on a number of factors, such as the design of the object, the intended purpose of the part and the skill of the person who did the printing. But when designed correctly, “a 3D-printed object can help reduce needed maintenance by consolidating part count and shortened time to recovery if replacement is needed,” said Greg Paulsen, Director of Applications Engineering at Xometry, an AI-driven platform for manufacturers.
Still, it’s important to do a benefit analysis when deciding whether to use 3D printing or traditional manufacturing methods. 3D printing is ideal for high-design, low-volume parts, as well as for prototyping, Paulsen said.
“There are things that could be 3D printed and things that should be 3D printed,” Tracey said. “For example, think about a basic bolt. I could print them, but I shouldn’t. It’s cheaper and easier to manufacture them.”
The first-cost price of additive manufacturing is usually higher than traditional manufacturing, partly because materials used in additive manufacturing are more expensive. But the cost of additive manufacturing becomes very competitive when you consider the full life-cycle cost or the similar total cost of ownership, Tracey says. One major cost savings in additive manufacturing is that there’s no need to retool a machine for each new product. Tooling costs account for about 5% of the additive manufacturing process compared to 90% for traditional manufacturing, according to a Deloitte report.
“If you factor in some of the hard to measure factors (inventory, obsolescence, lead-times) or intangible items (carbon footprint, for instance), the case becomes really compelling for additive,” Tracey adds.
What the Future Holds
3D printing technology, and how it’s being used, is evolving on a daily basis. But what’s clear is that it has a big future. By 2025, 3D printing is expected to be a more than $4 billion market. One of the most recent advances in technology is the expansion into more types of metal. While much of the growth in 3D printing has been in plastics and polymers, metals have definitely entered the conversation.
The availability of more metals means 3D printing could expand from typically being used for complex, low-volume products to lower cost, higher-volume products. And as the cost of the printers continues to drop, more organizations are likely to buy them. For FMs, that will have a major impact on an important key performance indicator — first-time repair rate, Pierce said.
“In a typical scenario, a field service technician might come out to look at a problem, order the needed part, wait for the part and then fix the problem,” he continued. “But in a 3D printing-assisted scenario, now they can go back, print the part and, boom, their first-time repair rate improves. It might take 30 minutes.”
The growth of 3D printing is all but assured, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t stumbling blocks in the way. The biggest one is intellectual property, Tracey said.
“If I make a part using a digital file and it’s a proprietary design, who owns that intellectual property?” he said. “Typically, if I buy a part from a manufacturer today, they’re selling for a profit. How do I do that with a file?”
For example, there’s a risk that buying a 3D-printed part from someone other than the original manufacturer could void the warranty on a machine, Pierce said. Government regulations also have lagged behind the technology. “There are no formal rules and regulations about safety and efficacy of additive manufacturing parts: They are all based on traditional manufacturing methods,” Tracey added.
These concerns will impact how 3D printing is adopted and expanded, but Tracey and Pierce agree it won’t stop additive manufacturing from becoming pervasive.
“As the prices come down, it will become more and more mainstream,” Pierce said. “I think it will evolve just like the desktop computer — not that everyone will have one on their desk, but maybe in their basement.”