3D Printing of Spare Parts: the Challenges are Surmountable

The opportunity to use additive manufacturing to print spare parts is widely recognized.  In ARC’s conversations with industry insiders, we have come across many companies that have beta projects and are printing a small number of parts, but no company that is doing this at scale. There are a number of challenges associated with scaling additive manufacturing in the supply chain:

  • Old parts are often the slow-moving parts, does the company still have the design specs for these parts?
  • A big company may have tens of thousands of slow moving SKUs. Are they willing to dispose of that inventory and write it off?
  • The performance and lifespan of a printed part will be different than traditional parts. In some cases, it may be better. But the testing pro-cess may be lengthy.
  • Can companies insure that a repeatable, high quality process will be used to print parts in myriad warehouses around the world?
  • Companies do not want to share their intellectual property with third parties like LSPs. If they are working with contract manufacturers from areas where counterfeiting is common, they also need to ensure that only the specified number of parts are printed.
  • There can be cultural issues: many people just don’t like to do things in a new way; further, manufacturing executives in charge of spare part production may have to cede authority for many parts to supply chain executives.

But the challenges are not insurmountable.  Those manufacturers that are ahead of their peers are the ones that have concept centers with dedicated staffs devoted to exploiting this technology.  Manufacturers that have advanced further have targets for determining the SKUs that will have the best ROI and have set goals for saving money in this area.

Further, a Cloud-based solution from LEO Lane is in place to ensure that intellectual property is protected and that the quality of the printing process across an extended supply chain meets the specified quality standards.  The LEO Lane solution takes a company’s part files and converts them into their proprietary file structure.  Using this file and the Cloud, the solution enforces the manufacturing rules; for example, that the parts are produced using the specified printer, materials, temperature settings, and layering angles. It also enforces distribution rules by only allowing the specified number of parts to be printed. Further, if the floor level employee is not properly following the rules, the file will not open, the printing process cannot proceed, and an alert is sent to the appropriate manager. Because this is a Cloud solution, printing can occur globally while parts can be tracked centrally.

While the printing of spare parts is only being done on a small scale, in-dustry contacts assert some of the companies with concept centers and who are doing this internally, rather than relying on partners, are on the verge of taking their programs to scale.

Now that there is a solution for controlling the printing process across the extended supply chain, third party logistics firms with a network of warehouses become natural service providers for this business line.  That is because many critical service parts have service level agreements with tight turnaround times. With regional hubs and the ability to inject parts into their express delivery network, 3PLs can will usually be able to provide better service at a lower cost than than their manufacturing clients.

UPS Has Invested in the Additive Manufacturing Firm Fast Radius

UPS recognizes this.  UPS’s strategic investment arm, the UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund, took a stake in a company called Fast Radius that provides 3D printing, CNC, and rapid injection molding services for industrial companies. Fast Radius is located in a facility owned by UPS in their Louisville and Singapore air hubs.

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