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Instant Parts

To reduce inventory, production and machine downtime costs, maintenance organizations should get up to speed with the latest developments in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing technology. In the near future, 3D printing could...

June 1, 2014 | By By Robert Robertson

To reduce inventory, production and machine downtime costs, maintenance organizations should get up to speed with the latest developments in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing technology. In the near future, 3D printing could very well be a new way of quickly sourcing MRO replacement parts for repairing equipment.

3D printing has been around for a while, but the technology continues to gain rapid popularity. It’s a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of almost any shape from a digital model. 3D printers layer thin slices of plastic, metal or ceramic to produce almost anything that’s similar to that made using conventional manufacturing.

Wally Wilson, SME, CMRP, CPIM and senior reliability consultant, materials management with Charleston, SC-based Life Cycle Engineering, says maintenance can expect to benefit from 3D printing. According to Wilson, achieving lower MRO inventory levels and the ability to obtain needed repair parts will lead the way.

“The concept of 3D printing has traction in manufacturing. The opportunity to reduce the MRO inventory investment and its carrying costs will drive adoption of 3D printing in maintenance,” says Wilson. “Using the technology to produce hard-to-find or parts no longer in production is a close second motivator.”


“Most MRO storerooms maintain parts that have been identified as critical to equipment assets. Many of these parts are for older equipment however, and replacement parts aren’t available from suppliers. Replacing some of these parts will become less of a challenge if they can be duplicated using 3D printing technology.”

According to Wilson, 3D printing will offer the following advantages to maintenance departments:
• Prototype parts can be developed to facilitate modification of equipment, which allows the engineering team to change the design of parts.
• Essential or insurance spare parts can be created as required. This reduces the need for managing these physical MRO inventory items.
• Risk to production involving parts with excessive delivery times can be reduced. Examples would be overseas suppliers or suppliers with limited reliability for their parts.

“Having blueprint data with accurate dimensions would enable maintenance technicians to produce needed parts with a 3D printer. Maintenance departments, however, should first outsource 3D printing to a supplier that can produce their parts,” advises Wilson “After the application is proven successful, it would then be easier to justify the MRO purchase of an in-house 3D printer.

“When computers, mobile phones and other technology were first introduced, they seemed too futuristic to ever become the standard. The same could be said of 3D printing. While maintenance storerooms will be a late adapter of 3D printing, the technology will evolve and costs will come down. As a result, the acceptance of 3D printing as a source of MRO spare parts will become more favourable.”

Fort Smith, AR-based Baldor Electric Company, an electric motor builder and member of the ABB Group, has a history with 3D printing. Baldor currently uses a Stratasys Dimension SST 1200es 3D printer with Soluble Support Technology (SST). It applies modelling material that’s durable enough to perform virtually the same as regular production parts. With 3D printing, Baldor improves model design performance, as well as reduces build time, along with retooling and material costs.

Buck France, 3D team leader in the Baldor engineering department, is a proponent of 3D printing technology. He says 3D printing plays an instrumental role in Baldor model designs. Before entering the tooling stage, the form, fit and function of part designs can be verified and fine-tuned. And instead of making changes after the actual tooling has been completed, thousands of dollars can be saved with early identification of required updates.

“In-house 3D printing has been a valuable resource in our design process. Today, we can verify design modifications more quickly and complete designs with little or no delays at a fraction of the cost,” says France. “We have used our 3D printer for a range of parts on prototype motors – all the way from major components, such as endplates and frames, down to very small parts for single-phase switches.

“3D parts can be printed with a solid interior for strength and durability, such as aluminum/cast iron prototype parts from temporary moulds. 3D prototype prints can also be made using a honeycomb interior. We can achieve quicker build times and lower material costs. This leads to faster design times from engineering to the manufacturing floor. Additive manufacturing for parts with complex and difficult-to-achieve geometry is an exciting emerging field.”

France believes the day isn’t far off when maintenance organizations will possibly use 3D printing to create “instant” parts for MRO repairs. “3D printing is suited for broken parts, costly parts, hard-to-find parts, or parts that just aren’t produced anymore,” he says. “As the technology advances and different materials are introduced, MRO replacement parts could be printed with additive manufacturing. This would reduce downtime and the cost to order replacement parts.”

Robert Robertson is a Mississauga, ON-based freelance writer and contributing editor to MRO Magazine.

The future of 3D printing

According to Stamford, CT-based consulting firm Gartner Inc., worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to grow 75% in 2014 – followed by a near doubling of unit shipments in 2015. Also by next year, Gartner fully expects that seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3D printers through their physical and online stores.

“Most businesses are realizing the ways in which they can cost-effectively use 3D printing. This includes prototyping and product development to fixtures and moulds used to manufacture or assemble an item to drive finished goods,” says Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner. “Organization managers have heard the hype. They want to know when the business will have a 3D printer.”

You can expect 3D printing technology will keep changing how manufacturers and retailers view their overall operations, including maintenance. This is due to 3D printing’s current success rate with product design modelling. For example, Adidas 3D prints a range of prototype sports footwear. Black & Decker also creates sample household products for evaluation.

The UPS Store is testing 3D printing services; it started with its location in San Diego, CA. The UPS Store expects to produce engineering parts, functional prototypes and more for in-store customers. And to prepare for building on-demand parts in space, Mountain View, CA-based Made in Space has partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to launch the first 3D printer into space this August.

“The ability to 3D print parts and tools on-demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions, while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude. Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” says Made in Space CEO Aaron Kemmer. “Rather than hoping the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D-printed when they are needed?”

In collaboration with Minneapolis, MN-based RedEye On Demand, KOR EcoLogic in Winnipeg, MB, is building the first road-ready, fuel-efficient car with 3D printing technology. The two-passenger vehicle, known as URBEE 2, is targeted to hit the road in 2015.

And believe it nor not, but there’s already talk of 4D printing (the fourth dimension is transformation over time, as in a printed pipe that could sense the need to expand or contract). Yes, it should be one heck of an interesting ride for folks in maintenance and reliability. Robert Robertson


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