Can 3D Printing Help Your Machines Live Long and Prosper?
In the Star Trek television series, one of the many futuristic devices featured was the replicator, an appliance about the size of a microwave oven. It could produce anything on demand — from a dry martini to a bowl of chicken soup. But while that was from a fictional world hundreds of years into the future, nowadays 3D printers are the closest thing we have to a real-life replicator; in fact, technology writers have explicitly made that connection.
There’s growing excitement about 3D printing in the consumer space. The concept of mass product customization, once a contradiction in terms, becomes more realistic when manufacturers can give consumers a way to customize wares using 3D printing apps. The sectors benefiting from its use are growing: in San Francisco, for example, a startup recently created a small house in 24 hours using 3D printing technology. And 3D printing has promising applications in the medical field too. 3D bioprinting research is underway to create cartilage replacements to treat osteoarthritis. Plus, humans and animals alike can benefit from 3D prosthetics: veterinarians have used 3D printing to create replacement shells for injured tortoises. The possibilities are virtually limitless… but can 3D printing help manufacturing plants run more efficiently?
Star Trek foreshadowed a future that is now here. In that universe, the replicator didn’t just serve dinner—it was also used to make spare parts for the ship, so it wouldn’t have to return to base every time a repair was needed. In a similar way, manufacturing plants can use 3D printing to create quality replacement parts for just about any type of equipment in any environment, solving spare parts issues quickly and economically.
3D printing capabilities can be especially important for manufacturers who need difficult-to-find parts and accessories for aging machinery, especially at legacy manufacturing plants. In that scenario, 3D-printed parts are already providing highly reliable alternatives to traditional replacement parts.
Many 3D-printed parts outlast alternatives created using more conventional methods, even in rough industrial environments. For example, using a 3D printer, experts can create plastic parts that are enhanced with metals to improve durability under challenging conditions. And as time goes on, 3D printing technology keeps getting more advanced, allowing for more enhancement possibilities.
While some manufacturers already use 3D printing to create prototypes, industrial operations are increasingly finding that 3D printing applications for efficient spare parts management is essential. For example, if a company needs a handful of replacement parts but finds that they can only purchase each needed product in bulk, using a 3D printer to create just a small batch can be more cost effective.
Another use case is for obsolete parts. It’s not unusual for machine lifecycles to greatly exceed the number of years the equipment manufacturer makes spare parts for it. A factory might have a 15-year-old machine that the original equipment manufacturer stopped making spare parts for after 10 years. In that scenario, a 3D printer can be a lifesaver.
3D printing may still sound futuristic, but it’s already playing a role in manufacturing operations today, producing parts that fold seamlessly into supply chains worldwide. To learn more about 3D printing’s bright future in spare parts management, take a look at our infographic and consider the ways 3D printing can help your legacy machines—to mirror the popular Star Trek phrase—live long and prosper.