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Colonel Stephen Piercy (left) with Captain Billy McDougall of the NZ Defence Force – a working group is spearheading the use of 3D at their Trentham site – Photo by Nigel Parry

Doomsday demolition – will 3D printing demolish parts and spares inventories? – By Nigel Parry

Imagine a world where there is no parts inventory. Anywhere. Manufacturers make whatever they want, instantly, onsite or close by. Your washing machine repairer has the part they need ready to collect as soon as they tap the order on their smartphone, without it ever sitting on a shelf. No need for warehouses. Pretty scary, huh? Should we be frightened?

You can buy a baby 3D printer at Warehouse Stationery. Hook it up to a PC, feed it some raw plastic, a digital file and ‘hey presto’ you can make almost any shape.

Some experts prefer the term ‘additive manufacturing’, and the wide variety of materials and processes stretches all the way to solid metals. It is also described as ‘the third way’, making something three-dimensional (3D) without moulding or machining it. The magic comes when millions of different parts can be produced from the same raw material and machine.

A thing of the past

A few minutes on Google and you can find plenty of references to how 3D printing will revolutionise supply chains. From bits and pieces all the way up to boats and buildings, clothes to body parts, motorbikes and aircraft engines, there is much excitement.

Some gurus claim 3D will do away with local parts; others point to complex assemblies made in one go. Apparently, we could save billions of dollars globally and cut a swathe through carbon emissions (and transport and ware-housing) in the process. 

Carl Johnston of FI Innovations: “You can make a product that has several parts in one go, even moving parts”

“Linear value chains may be replaced by agile networks of on-demand FabLabs (small-scale workshops offering digital fabrication) … Supply chains could undergo a dramatic change – there would be a much higher flow of input materials than intermediary inputs and finished goods … Keeping spare parts in inventory could become a thing of the past.” So says the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2020 3D white paper. It notes that companies like Mercedes are already doing this for spares of older models.

The WEF says estimates of global trade affected vary considerably – from 25% down by 2060, to 1–2% down by 2030. Other estimates say down by 10%. Or even 40%. Take your pick – it’s all headed south.

Woah, hold ya horses

It is easy to get overexcited by the hype, but life just isn’t that simple according to experts I interviewed. Here’s what we need to know.

“Additive manufacturing is far more complex,” says Colonel Stephen Piercy, Defence Logistics Command at the NZ Defence Force (NZDF). He says that with machined or formed parts, everything is known, but “additive … every time you are doing it, you’ve got an unknown specification.” There is a risk you could make something that fits, but fails in use. He chaired the NZDF working group on 3D, a technique they are already spearheading at their Trentham site.

Bruno le Razer of Zenith Technica: “3D is great, but for some applications you need qualifications and set-up to be certified – there are limited companies with the right qualifications and certification”

You produce mechanical properties during the build so it’s a little bit more difficult to qualify the process, says Bruno le Razer of titanium specialists Zenith Technica. “The idea (3D) is great, but for some applications you need qualifications and set-up to be certified. There are limited companies with the right qualifications and certification.”

Often, you can replicate the shape, but can’t replicate the functionality or material, says Hayden Bennett, director at Auckland-based Clone 3D. One well-known dishwasher manufacturer reckons only about half a dozen parts could be made by 3D now. “You can do crazy things, but it’s down to materials. The biggest growth is in materials,” they say.

NZDF agrees. Their Trentham experts see at least one new material developed every week, from resin or metal to carbon-reinforced plastic. And that creates another area to consider – the 3D materials supply chain. 

Recreating the chain

“It changes the supply chain material that you are going to have, from having completed parts, to materials that allow you to complete parts,” says Colonel Piercy. “Our supply chain still needs to be there.”

That can bring new challenges. For example, solid metal is pretty safe, but the material to produce it can have a dangerous goods rating.

“You can make a product that has several parts in one go, even moving parts, or one you couldn’t even make conventionally,” comments Carl Johnston of FI Innovations in Invercargill. The example touted is a complete bicycle gear derailleur assembly, including cogs and springs. “But you still need to machine moving parts smooth and the one I have seen would break if you actually put it on a bike,” he adds. One for the future maybe.

Hayden Bennett of Clone 3D: “We haven’t had this tech for very long – there’s not the design knowledge or the skills”

“3D is not always the way forward, or is just one part of the whole process,” says Hayden Bennett. And injection moulding is currently so much faster and cheaper for common products.

Another big issue is intellectual property rights. You just need a digital file to produce a shape, but big companies make a lot of money through their spares – and it isn’t a gravy train they will jump off lightly. And will Customs keep up?

Horses for courses

There is already a well-travelled path for 3D – rapid prototyping. It slashes the design-test redesign time. Yet it is already making inroads in other areas.

“It’s ideal for small components and smaller production runs under a thousand a year,” states Hayden Bennett. And 18 months ago, FTD wrote about Rocket Lab already using 3D for complex rocket motors.

It is also a shoo-in for many obsolete parts. So while KiwiRail says they are “not actively investigating incorporating 3D printing into our maintenance operations,” NZDF is already on the way. “It is a way of recreating supply chains that don’t exist anymore,” comments Colonel Piercy. 

He sees a future where spares in stores will partly be replaced by a mobile container with 3D printers and materials.

Next phase

Up until now, 3D has been trying to replicate parts designed to be made by traditional processes. The next era is when products are designed with 3D from the outset. There are already forces pushing in this direction, such as the EU ‘right to repair’ law coming into force next year.

“We really have to take advantage of what a 3D printer will do,” says Hayden Bennett. “We haven’t had this tech for very long – there’s not the design knowledge or the skills.” There is so much potential in learning how to design for the technology, he adds. “The only way we can do that is through time.”

Chris Hilleard of Callaghan Innovation’s AddLab agrees. “Uptake will be significantly more. We’re already on the downward slope of the hype curve, the upward slope of the take-up curve. In five to ten years we’ll be really up the curve for what to do and how to use it.”

He points to schools, colleges and universities already getting their students confident in the additive manufacturing world.

The next generation will be making our future in 3D.

Award-winning journalist Nigel Parry started writing for FTD over ten years ago, and has been covering logistics and supply chain issues in a number of countries for more than two decades  nigel.parry@gmail.com


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