Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly known, has made significant commercial progress in recent years, and its on track to transform the MRO spare part industry in the years to come. Already, it is possible to produce highly complex, 3D components in a variety of materials including plastics, concrete, carbon fiber, metals, and composites. Siemens, Rolls Royce, and GE already are creating titanium turbine parts for airplane engines using 3D printing. GE Healthcare prints ultrasound transducers for medical devices. 3D printers have been used mainly to prototype components in the past, but technology advancements in the last three years have made 3D printing a viable option for many OEMs.
Examples of additive manufacturing
1. Stereolithography — Light sensitive resin is exposed to a UV laser, solidifying the pattern layer by layer according to a CAD-defined model. Unexposed resin is washed away after by chemical bath, revealing the component.
2. Fused deposition. Melted metal or plastic is dispensed from a nozzle, cooling and hardening immediately, building up the component according to the defined pattern.
3. Laser sintering — A high-powered laser fuses metal, ceramic, or plastic particles. Using a 3D image as a pattern, successive ultra thin layers are built to create the finished component. Currently, aircraft engine manufacturers use this method to build titanium fan blades.
4. Laser engineered net shaping — Similar to laser sintering, four nozzles direct a stream of metal powder toward a common point, while a high-powered argon laser is fired at the common point to heat the metal and fuse together.
The typical metalcaster or machinist may view 3D printing as a threat to their own future opportunities, but 3D printing is a disruptive technology that should be embraced. The better forecast is that 3D printers and other manufacturing processes will co-exist in future manufacturing operations — and some that are now in development —driving value and profit for enterprise, and building upon existing business strengths in a number of ways.
What Does 3D Printing Mean for OEMs?
Manufacturers will embrace 3D printing technologies as they recognize its potential to help meet sustainability goals, while generating the same margins from selling the design plans to the parts, rather than the part itself. OEMs will simply sell the license for their designs so components can be reproduced at the user’s site. This eliminates the need for the manufacturer to transport spare parts. Also, as the end user manufactures the part, OEMs will not have to provide warranties or parts-buyback programs.
Replacement components will be printed onsite in a fraction of the time it takes to order and ship the part from the manufacturer. Design changes will be possible, to produce components that are more reliable and durable.
3D printing will be especially valuable at remote locations where spare parts are needed but stock rooms are impractical, such as offshore oilrigs, ships at sea, or mine sites that have to wait days for replacement parts to arrive. No custom molds, tooling, machining, or transportation will be required. For older equipment, or any system or design for which new or used spares cannot be sourced, replacement pieces could be printed up quickly, extending the life of the asset.
At a gas turbine production site in Sweden, Siemens is using 3D printing to perform rapid repairs on IGT components, reducing the repair time by 90%. The defective parts are simply rebuilt using laser sintering. It’s the same concept that is being researched for repairing casting dies. 3D printing will limit the number of parts sitting on shelves in storerooms around the world, reducing part obsolescence. The won’t be built unless they are needed, conserving raw materials and decreasing the impact on the environment by reducing shipping needs. As there is no design waste (e.g., gating, trimmings, swarf) for 3D printed parts, fewer raw materials will be consumed than in conventional manufacturing techniques.
There are some obvious restrictions to these forecasts: A tiny error during the build process could render a component useless. Additive manufacturing technologies are not yet able to print complex parts like electronics boards, and the applications seem focused on printing simple components like casings, dampers, couplings etc. Also, it many never be economical to purchase a 3D printer unless the plan is to print a large quantity of spare parts, as suggested by the example of drilling rigs, or manufacturing plants that operate various types of machinery.
On-Demand Spare Parts
At the same time, additive manufacturing is good news for organizations that have cash tied up in MRO spares onsite. It will lead to a number of efficiency improvements and cost reductions including a reduction in repair time, reduction in spare parts carrying costs and an increase in service levels. They will help organizations reduce the time spent searching for spare parts; time spent processing orders and the number of suppliers they deal with. Instead, parts could be printed onsite when needed under license from the OEM. 3D printers range from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars depending on the materials so it may be beyond the reach of small to medium sized businesses but it could open up a whole new industry of contract spare parts printing.
Jeff O’Brien is a product specialist and blogger for Maintenance Assistant Inc., a developer of web-based computerized maintenance management software. Visit www.maintenanceassistant.com or contact O’Brien at Linkedin.