Storing and shipping spare parts has been one of the pain points for suppliers as well as customers for a long time.

Taking into account that inventory of infrequent spare parts are expensive and suppliers often stop producing or stop offering the spare parts that ULTIMATELY disrupts the manufacturing cycle and forces manufacturers to store large inventories of parts or turn to third party manufacturers.

But how has this change with the advent of additive manufacturing?

For a long time, 3D printing was only used in making prototypes for new products, but today’s manufacturing industries realize the potential of additive manufacturing. In fact, 85% of spare parts suppliers are saying that they will fully integrate 3D printing into their manufacturing process within the next five years.

Reducing inventory, decreasing transportation costs, and increasing on-demand manufacturing ability, 3D printing can offer a plethora of opportunities in the spare parts industry.

Source

Below are four reasons why 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the supply chain.

1. Spare Parts are Costly

In the conventional supply chain, manufacturers mass-produce spare parts to save up costs and prevent shortage of inventory. Afterward, they store the components in a central warehouse which can lead to longer delivery times. It is also common that suppliers will store parts at regional warehouses to ensure a quick delivery. This method further increases the inventory cost. Yet, most importantly, some spare parts stay in the warehouse for a long time and get damaged which are written off as a loss or require costly and time consuming effort for replacement.

3D printing steps in to eliminate these types of problems. 3D printing can ensure the printed parts meet the specific requirement and provide quality without the time constraint. Thanks to the quick production time and lower cost impacts,3D printers can produce on-demand spare parts closer to the point of need where companies can then deliver more quickly to the customers.

2. Customized Products and Delivery

Today, customers have options to choose between different products due to the boost in the e-commerce industry.This shift in commerce engagement has increased the need for more personalized or customer-centric products to be considered for future business. This ability further demands excellent customer service and communication with equal or greater priority than the product itself.

Additive Manufacturing has the potential to address the demands of a dynamic e-commerce landscape. 3D printing capabilities meets the needs for versatile inventory. With an ever increasing network of 3D printing service providers throughout the states and the globe, reduction in transportation logistics allows for resource savings to be invested in creating a top-notch customer engagement opportunities.

3. Digitalizing the Inventory

High inventory costs can be eliminated by Additive Manufacturing with the help of digitizing the inventory. Being a tool-less process, 3D printing unlocks the Make-to-Order option for suppliers which all for more rapid response to customized orders and the ability produce new designs within a short frame of time.

4. Changing Landscapes in Spare Parts

Nowadays, the spare parts industry is undergoing a range of challenges, from manufacturing to the storage of spare parts. They often face difficulties in evaluating the demand for the product, resulting in overproduction and excess stock. This increases the inventory cost of the company.

Along with it, manufacturers decline to produce un-popular parts to save cost, leaving the customer hanging, and they are forced to stock a large number of spare parts or turn to third-party manufacturers, which becomes very costly to the manufacturers. This is very common in the Government/DoD sectors where military divisions and contractors feel abandoned by original equipment manufacturers.

Nevertheless, with the help of additive manufacturing, all of these problems can be resolved.

Additive Manufacturing – Ideal Solution

The most significant benefit of additive manufacturing is that it offers on-demand manufacturing.

This shift in manufacturing from “make-to-stock” to “make-to-order” for low volume production of spare parts, gives a significant upper hand to the OEMs and suppliers. With the lack of tools, the lead time of manufacturing small batches can be decreased significantly.

Apart from that and with the integration of scanning technology, the reverse engineering of spare parts is possible. 3D scanners can create a perfect digital model of a physical part and can be produced through the 3D printers quickly, thereby completely digitizing the part to build process. For example, when a small number of discontinued parts are required, the design of the components can be reverse-engineered from any remaining physical items on the shelf or data can be regenerated from old design files and brought up to date in a digital file system. This would then allow for the discontinued parts to stored digitally until a customer demands a replacement.

Examples of this make-to-order system is happening today.Manufacturing giants like Mercedes-Benz integrated 3D printers to manufacture spare parts for freight trucks. Deutsche Bahn also started to incorporate 3D printers in their manufacturing system where DB aims to make 10000 types of spare parts available for production within 2021.

The defense and aerospace industries are also moving their production process towards additive manufacturing. They are early adopters, and their investment started to bear fruit already in terms of reduced inventory cost and production efficiency.

In-House or Outsourcing AM

Early on it was mentioned about the value of ever expanding AM facilities, but many manufacturers still prefer to establish an in-house 3D printing facility rather than outsourcing them. However, before installing an in-house facility, manufacturers have to manage a bit of a balancing act to go over some factors like the volume of production, cost of implementation, and efficiency of the system.

For example, if the spare parts required is less, then there is no point in investing in a 3D printing facility. With the increasing number of 3D printing facilities, manufacturers can easily have their spare parts printed externally.

Challenges in Adopting AM in Spare Parts

Apart from so many benefits, there are some challenges of additive manufacturing in the spare parts supply chain.

  1. Quality –  Process repeatability is one of the major concerns for manufacturers in additive manufacturing. The challenge is to set quality standards for 3D printed parts and to make sure every produced part meets those requirements. For this, dedicated software is used. For example, process repeatability software is used to check the quality of every manufactured product by logging and tracking every part of the workflow.
  1. Legal Barrier – Intellectual property rights and copyright is another issue with 3D printing. As 3D printing models are digitized, there is caution between manufacturers, how they will protect their design from copying by their rivals. So, both manufacturers and suppliers have to resolve these issues before moving forward with adopting additive manufacturing.
  1. Materials –3D printed materials are not always a 1:1 relationship versus injection molded offerings. The selection of materials for the additive manufacturing process needs to be navigated smartly and with a focus on the preferred performance outcome, not necessarily the material recipe itself. For instance, a PA-6 nylon for the injection molding process may not be equal to the PA-6 chemistry selected for a powder bed fusion process which may not net expected results in a printed part. However, often a nylon-12 or glass-filled nylon-12 may meet most or all the same expectations.

Looking Ahead

As the OEMs and spare part suppliers are understanding the potential of additive manufacturing, they are moving forward with integrating AM into their manufacturing system.

As technology becomes more matured and the quality and legal challenges are resolved, Additive manufacturing will play a more significant role in the spare part supply chain, and it will further revolutionize the traditional supply chain industry. Who knows, you might be printing your own spare parts one day!