By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
3D printing is one of those technologies that was perpetually on the cusp of widespread adoption, but never quite got there. In the past few years, though, it does seem to have reached a tipping point. There are auto manufacturers and aerospace companies, for example, that are printing parts for their vehicles, and the technology has taken off in some surprising places (like manufacturing dentures).
But in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when global supply chains were shut down, a lot of people began experimenting with these printers to address a short-term problem – part and product availability. That opened a lot of eyes to a key benefit of 3D printing: flexible, decentralized manufacturing in relatively small quantities.
Which is why I have been wondering how field service could potentially benefit from on-demand manufacturing, particularly in industries where wait times on spare parts can degrade service performance.
Is there a business case to be made for field service organizations to invest in 3D printers and create their own spare parts? Short-term (and maybe long-term) the answer is probably no. Even in highly specific applications like HVAC service, there are so many different parts made of different materials, it would be impossible to justify the cost of buying multiple printers just to create a few one-off parts. That doesn't mean that 3D printing can’t help field service, though.
There are examples of companies testing out 3D printing for spare parts applications, but so far they tend to be in industries that rely on in-house mechanics rather than field service engineers – automotive, aerospace, defense, etc. Companies like Airbus and Boeing have reverse engineers and printed parts for older aircraft when parts become obsolete. Porsche also launched a program a few years ago to print custom parts for owners of vintage cars.
In some cases, companies are directly printing the end use part, rather than creating it in a machine shop or trying to find an aftermarket part. In others, they use 3D printing to recreate molds, tools or dyes that would otherwise be extremely expensive to reconstruct.
It is unlikely we would see field service technicians printing parts at a job site – the equipment is too persnickety and (depending on the material) slow. But it could help augment parts warehouse/depot operations for long-tail or obsolete parts. Right now, if a part is hard to get, service organizations are faced with either a long wait time (to find a part, or get one shipped, in some cases internationally) or to create something in a machine shop for large, expensive industrial use cases.
3D printing would have an advantage for hard-to-find parts that can be printed – and not every part and material is printable – or for accelerating the creation of new tooling/molds. Instead of waiting weeks, you can cut that time to days or even hours.
The sweet spot seems to be high-value, low-volume parts with long lead times on either shipping or manufacturing, which would generally limit profitable parts printing to heavy industries.
For example, IMI Critical Engineering, an oil and gas service company, hopes to use 3D printing to help reduce its reliance on stocking expensive, low-utilization spare parts. You can see the benefit here: the parts are very expensive and used in very specific facilities and, although they may not fail often, when they do they need to be replaced very quickly. The company was able to print metal parts that meet industry standards faster than machining them and is evaluating rolling this capability out to multiple facilities. Similarly, Shell Nigeria was able to reverse engineer and print an obsolete seal cover for a mooring buoy at an offshore site, cutting lead time from 16 weeks down to two, and reducing replacement costs by 90%.
On the other end of the spectrum, UK-based Rowse (an electrical and pneumatics equipment supplier) used 3D printing to create a replacement bracket for its label printers that couldn't be sourced anywhere else. Printing the bracket saved the company the expense of having to buy all new printers.
Most field service organizations do not operate machine shops, though, and probably don't have the engineering expertise on hand to create a part from scratch. There are third-party manufacturing service firms that do have that equipment and expertise, though, and FSOs struggling with increasing spare part sourcing issues might want to start talking to their suppliers about solutions that leverage outsourced 3D printing where it makes sense (mainly for obsolete parts that won't raise any intellectual property concerns or issues with manufacturer agreements).
Even though we may never see 3D printers in the back of technicians’ vans, printed spare parts might be one way that suppliers and manufacturers can help the field service industry address supply chain snags, parts shortages, and reduce long wait times.
Do you have experience with 3D printing spare parts, or other novel ways to solve parts shortage issues? I would love to hear about them.