Additive manufacturing has evolved to the point where it is now possible to “print” with metal. For maintenance and repair organizations, the advantages of additive manufacturing include the potential for reducing inventory, avoiding downtime and cutting waste. Here, we’ll examine the advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing from a maintenance/MRO perspective.
Additive manufacturing basics
“Additive” refers to the process of building shapes by adding material piece by piece. This type of manufacturing distinguishes it from traditional “subtractive” machining processes where material is cut away to create the required form. “3D printing” is often used as a synonym for “additive manufacturing,” although not all additive processes have the same characteristics as printing. The 3D printing of polymers is a fairly mature technology. While there are many variations, the most widely used principle is extrusion through a hot nozzle. The nozzle is mounted on an XY gantry and moves over a table to deposit a bead of material. To build upward with successive layers, the table moves down.
Additive manufacturing with metal powders is a more recent development. Two widely used technologies are powder bed fusion and powder deposition. Within these categories, there are many variations in how shapes are built. In powder bed fusion, a layer of metal powder is spread across a table. Then, either a binder material is injected to hold the grains in place prior to sintering, or a laser scans over the surface to sinter the grains in-situ. In powder deposition, the powder passes through an energy beam to be sintered as it is applied to the surface.
Attractions and benefits of additive manufacturing for MRO
- Produce less waste: Subtractive manufacturing methods may remove as much as 90% of the material with which it starts. By contrast, additive processes use only a little more material than is needed in the final form, the extra being used for support structures. If multiple parts are combined into one, the savings can be greater still. Additive manufacturing also saves energy compared to subtractive processes; metal cutting is avoided, as it transports through a manufacturing facility.
- Lower your costs: Early additive machines were slow, expensive and had a limited working envelope. As the technology has matured, the machines have become bigger and faster and prices have dropped, making it an affordable alternative to traditional parts manufacturing methods.
- Decrease time to repair: If a replacement part isn’t in inventory and must be ordered, it can sometimes take days to arrive. That’s time during which a machine may be down, perhaps stopping production or requiring the use of more expensive manufacturing methods. 3D printing a replacement part can get the equipment back up and running in less time. Even if the printed part isn’t an exact replica, it only must function until the factory replacement is available.
- Reduce inventory: A large spares inventory helps safeguard against extended machine downtime caused by non-availability of key parts. However, inventory requires space, ties up cash, and can deteriorate or become obsolete. If you can “print” parts on-demand, the storeroom no longer needs to stock essential, slow-moving items.
- Prolong equipment life: It’s often difficult to source replacement parts for older manufacturing equipment. This is because manufacturers a) update their products and stop providing replacement parts for older models, and b) get acquired or go out of business. In extreme cases, the only option may be to buy new machinery — even though the old equipment still has plenty of useful life remaining. 3D printing provides a way around this. If a CAD model is available or can be created, simply “print,” finish and install a copy of the part.
Additive manufacturing could solve your production problems
There are many benefits of 3D printing in manufacturing. While sometimes viewed as a new way of making production parts, it is also a valuable support tool. Grippers and fixtures are examples of production aids and tooling that are increasingly being made via additive processes. If made from plastic, these tools may not have the durability of metal equivalents, but the time saved over-purchased cast and/or machined parts can make that worthwhile.
Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many manufacturers have discovered the time-saving benefits of additive manufacturing. Furthermore, additive manufacturing is a valuable tool in MRO. Feeling the pressure to cut costs and raise equipment availability, many maintenance departments are searching for ways to improve effectiveness of MRO operations. In this regard, additive manufacturing could reduce spare parts inventory, help get broken down equipment up and running in less time and reduce waste of materials and energy.
In addition to an extensive range of maintenance support services, ATS can undertake 3D printing of replacement parts. This is a way of resolving production stoppages quickly when OEM parts are no longer available. Contact ATS to learn more.