MRO Magazine

3D Printed Replacement Parts

How additive manufacturing trends affect the aftermarket.


Industry

October 22, 2021
By Rehana Begg

Photo: Samuel, Son & Co.

From aerospace to car parts and medical devices, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is undergoing a manufacturing renaissance and shaking its reputation for producing trinkets, toys and doodads. The innovative potential of AM is now integral to the global vision for innovative, transformative digital manufacturing.

What makes AM different from subtractive manufacturing is that it enables the direct fabrication of parts with complex internal geometries, bypasses the need for product-specific tooling, reduces production cost and streamlines supply chains. Recent supply chain and manufacturing disruptions forced manufacturers to harness its capabilities for producing large-scale medical devices and components in inventive ways.

The ramp up is trending across the globe. OEMs are expanding their revenue models by adopting AM-related technology for production and commercialization. General Motors uses metal AM to develop enhanced jet engine components; Lockheed Martin and Boeing use AM for defense and aerospace; Siemens uses it for the development of high-efficient gas turbine blades; and Align Technology (the company behind Invisalign) uses it in customized orthodontics.

For all the hype, Canada has for the most part maintained low levels of output and is considered a small player relative to the U.S. and China. But according to analysts, the number of high-profile firms exploiting the technology’s flexibility and customizability is on the rise, and it could mean the competitive paradigm is shifting.

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Photo: Samuel, Son & Co.

Case in point: Earlier this year, Samuel, Son & Co. acquired Mississauga, Ont.-based Burloak Technologies. The metal processing multinational sized up the AM trend early on and embraced the opportunity to grow the company’s competency and competitiveness, said Samuel’s President and CEO, Colin Osborne.

“McKinsey or Bain would say that additive manufacturing is one of the ten most disruptive technologies, along with AI and blockchain,” said Osborne. “It’s going to be very disruptive to my business, and it’s going to be very disruptive to my customers. Forget about aerospace; it’s going to be very disruptive in industrial manufacturing and manufacturing in general. We thought we needed to be engaged in the technology in a serious way, and we needed to provide our customers a unique opportunity to access.”

With $4.5 billion in sales, Samuel consists of about 15 different metals industry businesses related to industrial manufacturing and industrial products. As Osborne sees it, Burloak was a perfect fit for two reasons: “The first is that we pride ourselves as a company to offer to our customers something truly unique. We offer any metal solution that you need, whether that’s global sourcing or processing of near-net-shape blanks for automotive manufacturers, or small diameter tubing, or roll forming for rail cars… or building pressure vessels for the pharmaceutical industry. We do all of these things for customers. Secondly, the next frontier is really printing components. When we speak to OEMs, we can say, ‘We can source for you and go all the way through the value chain right up to printing a finished component.’”

Transformative potential
In January, Samuel made good on this claim when Boeing qualified Burloak to manufacture aluminum AlSi10Mg components to the Boeing BAC 5673 specification. It was the first time an additive manufacturer achieved this qualification and demonstrated the company’s ability to commercialize this technology, said Osborne.

The aerospace industry was an early adopter of AM because making the business case for manufacturing additive flight components is palpable. “When putting things up in the air,” pointed out Osborne, “it matters if you can make them 80 per cent lighter, if you can make them five times stronger and half the weight. The justification was profound.”

Photo: Samuel, Son & Co.

In aerospace, the buy-to-fly ratio describes the amount of wasted material in a manufacturing process. “If you buy 10 kilograms of metal to make a one-kilogram part, that ratio is 10:1. That’s a horrible ratio, but that’s the average ratio,” said Osborne. “In AM—forget about aerospace—you can make 1:1 or one and a half, because you use powder to make a part, and use every [bit] of powder. Then you recycle the rest.”

3D parts that fly
Mark Kirby echoes Osborne’s sentiment. The capacity to provide innovative solutions at scale for the aftermarket is nowhere clearer than in the aviation industry. “The posterchild for AM parts has been GE Aviation’s LEAP fuel nozzle, which was prototyped to handle the task of mixing jet fuel with air,” said the Industry Training Manager for the University of Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab (MSAM), which is one of the largest R&D additive manufacturing facilities in the world.

GE engineers first attempted to fabricate the nozzle using traditional casting methods, but the internal geometry proved to be almost impossible. The engineers turned to 3D printing to meet the walnut-sized fuel nozzle’s complex specifications. The part was prototyped to handle the task of mixing jet fuel with air. Instead of 20 pieces welded together, the nozzle’s tip was a single piece, four times lighter, five times more durable and 30 per cent more cost-efficient than a comparable part produced with conventional processing tools.

In 2015, GE set up a fuel nozzle facility in Auburn, Ala., and has since produced tens of thousands of fuel nozzle tips for the aviation industry. Kirby, an aeronautical engineer by training and an expert in metal AM, characterizes the additive breakthrough as a game changer because GE could procure spare parts for planes that have been in service for decades. GE’s additive production has since extended to a range of components, including sensors, blades, heat exchangers and other engine parts.

But he also points out that GE took all of the risk and all of the reward. “GE could do it; but very few companies can.”

Throttle bracket
For a scaled down repair story, Kirby points to Tronos. Founded in 2001, the Charlottetown-based company was set up to handle routine and heavy maintenance for a fleet of about 20 BAe 146 regional jetliners, as well as engines and spare parts. A few years ago, said Kirby, Tronos diversified its business by forming a manufacturing operation with the specific intent of entering additive manufacturing.

The company’s first replacement part was a throttle bracket. It was originally cast in magnesium, which makes it susceptible to corrosion. The plan, Kirby explained, was to print throttle brackets in titanium, which would make it stronger and corrosion resistant.

“This is an additive success story of a small company (30-40 employees) that leveraged knowledge of the marketplace,” said Kirby. “They understand what parts on the aeroplane would be suitable for AM and where there would be a business case for it. They’ve developed this bracket and it will have a parts manufacturing authorization from the FAA. These parts are about a thousand dollars each, so it’s not a huge volume for Tronos, but they understand the market, they understand the need. And that’s not trivial, because they’re replacing a bracket that was cast with one that’s been 3D-printed and machined.”

Stocking digital spares
Both Osborne and Kirby agree that adding AM to the production toolbox may not be the best fit for every manufacturing facility. The systems and infrastructure for having a CAD or computer model of a component that can be printed just in time is in its infancy. In this sense, the MRO market has a long way to go before it can declare its readiness to manage a “digital inventory” of spares, Kirby said.

Still, Osborne pointed out that there are many broad applications for additive that companies are not fully aware of or they often don’t know just how much AM can be applied to their day-to-day business. The opportunity for Canadian manufacturers, he said, is that the government has recognized that having an embedded manufacturing base that is globally competitive – albeit small companies – means having to adopt industry 4.0 technology.

“Companies will have to be innovators and embrace all aspects of Industry 4.0 – from applying artificial intelligence (AI) processes and industrial automation to applying additive manufacturing,” said Osborne. “In the area of AM, the government has provided funding to support development at colleges or universities or industry players like Samuel. Canada today, especially Ontario, truly has one of the most capable embedded infrastructures in the world to support AM. By nurturing AM, the government is asking: ‘Can we create the next Blackberry?’ In other words, can we create the next group of industry leaders? I think we can – I think there’s industry knowledge and academic knowledge in Canada that’s world class.”

There are alternative business strategies for smaller companies that don’t have the global research and technology capabilities, said Osborne. Strategic alliances and partnership models are among them. “Smaller companies don’t need to have the specialized AM capabilities,” said Osborne. “They can leverage our knowledge and the universities’ infrastructure. All they have to really do is open up their minds and bring applications that we can commercialize.” MRO

 

Uptime for 3D printing
There are many reasons MRO-related businesses need to consider additive manufacturing solutions. Colin Osborne, President and CEO, Samuel, Son & Co., called attention to three:The first relates to cost. Having tens of millions of dollars tied up in spares is never cost-efficient. “Maybe have one spare on the shelf,” said Osborne. “As long as plants have the drawings, the specs and capabilities, they can produce parts overnight. Plants can massively reduce the amount of work that goes with managing spares.”The second is efficiency. When you’re in the parts aftermarket and need parts at 50 locations, you’re not likely to take a die out of storage or reset your casting operations to make a small number of parts. “But that’s what plants end up doing, and it’s horribly inefficient,” said Osborne. “Of course, they’re not going to do it to make 10 parts, they’re going to make 500 parts, which they don’t need. I’ve seen literally millions of dollars worth of tools and dies and casting equipment tied up, waiting for aftermarket spares to be produced. That can be eliminated.”The third affects reliability engineering. When a machine goes down for hours, it pays to calculate the cost of downtime. “Reliability engineers can now look at whether they can print the spare…They can look at the failing parts of equipment and decide whether they should replace it. With AM, they can also optimize it – make it stronger, make it lighter, or improve the heat transfer, so it’s less brittle in this environment. They can actually replace it with something that’s better so machine uptime is better.

“Industries try very hard to get operating efficiencies of 85-90 per cent, and that’s world class,” said Osborne.

Much of the drive to get to those levels, he said, will come through innovation and decision-making, where plants are redesigning failed components so they don’t fail. MRO

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Rehana Begg is a Toronto-based freelance editor. She has spent the past decade in the trenches of industrial manufacturing, focusing on engineering, operations, asset performance and management. Reach her at rehanabegg@rogers.com.