From healthcare to retail to manufacturing, the 3D printing trend is taking hold of various industries. 3D printing, which is also called Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM), creates items using CAD (Computer Aided Design) and then builds them by adding thin layers of powder, melted plastic, aluminum, or other materials on top of each other. 3D printing requires less traditional raw materials and up to 90% less waste than traditional manufacturing. According to Canalys Research, the global market for 3D printers and 3D printing will grow to $5.2 billion in 2015, and is estimated to grow to $20.2 billion by 2019. And a study by Deloitte says that almost 220,000 3D printers will be sold globally by the end of 2015.
So what’s the best way field service companies can use 3D printers?
Smarter Inventory for Spare Parts
Perhaps the most practical use for 3D printers in field service is the replacement of spare parts. Whether parts are out of production or out of stock, 3D printers can come to the rescue. Even if your business doesn’t own a 3D printer in-house, there are companies such as Kazzata where you can send information, CAD files, and photographs of the part, and they will recreate it for you by sending it to a nearby 3D printer.
Spare parts make great prospects for 3D printing, since it can be difficult to anticipate the demand there will be for a certain part, especially considering some replacements only need to be ordered every once in awhile. Aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, is considering using 3D printing because they must keep every part in stock to be able to replace a broken one on short notice for every type of aircraft they have in service. This means that Airbus must store these rarely needed spare parts for the lifespan of their aircraft fleet, and this storage takes up a lot of space. If they used a 3D printer, they could minimize the storage space, and print the parts on-demand, when necessary.
In the medical device industry, 3D printing provides a faster and cheaper way to make parts that are usable in clinics. And if a medical study is being conducted to test tools or components that are being developed, 3D printers open up a means of doing the study earlier, before the actual components are completely ready.
The New Industrial Revolution
3D printing is bringing about the new industrial revolution, since you can now produce a single part on-demand, rather than having to mass produce it. One company, Siemens, is using 3D printing to quickly make replacement spare parts for gas turbines in an easy way. When a part breaks on the turbine, Siemens immediately prints the replacement rather than waiting for an ordered part to arrive, since sometimes that can take weeks. By using 3D printing for spare parts, the company has lowered their repair time by 90%, which means less downtime for the gas turbine.
Still, a future where field service vans are equipped with 3D printers ready to print spare parts is still a long way down the road. Yes, it seems like having printers in the back of trucks would be more efficient than being loaded with inventory or techs having to order it on field service software or needing to head back to a warehouse to get the part, but this is not necessarily true.
Though 3D printing has become more mainstream and affordable, it still takes a lot of time and certain climate-controlled conditions to print parts properly. It can take an industrial 3D printer 15 minutes to print a single hex nut. So imagine how long it takes to print larger parts. This would slow down field service technicians who wouldn’t be able to fit in as many service calls each because they’d have to wait for 3D printing to be finished on-site.
However, for parts that take a long time to arrive once they’re ordered, 3D printing could fill that gap since it allows field service techs to print replacements on demand. Rather than outfitting each individual service truck with an industrial 3D printer, placing a printer in a main office where all your techs can access it when they need it would make the most practical sense today.