When critical engine parts break down on a carrier’s vessel or aircraft, a mad rush ensues to find a replacement and get the engine serviced as soon as possible.
But what if that process no longer involved expediting an air shipment, and instead saw an engineer head to a room on the ship or in a hanger and within a few hours create a fully functionally replacement?
That’s the promise of 3D printing.
The method is also called additive construction because these printers slowly add a series of small material layers on top of each other until a final product is “printed” and ready for use. While the technology is still fairly new, 3D printers are currently being used to make replacement parts for aircraft engines, classic automobiles, and even titanium jaw bones and other “replacement parts” for people.
In case you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s time to take notice. Back at the end of 2010, Rolls Royce announced the Merlin Project, where it established a division that would test, and now uses, additive manufacturing to create replacement parts for aircraft engines. Then in the fall of 2011, a University of Virginia engineering class used a 3D printer to create a one-quarter-size replica of the same Rolls Royce jet engine that was so successful it could — using compressed air instead of jet fuel — run at the same idling speed as the real engine.
3D printing — which works with materials including plastics, metals, foams, concrete, and wood — has the potential to change the way the construction and parts industries operate around the globe, and logistics service providers and supply chain experts need to prepare for the disruptions that may come.
“3D printing is being used increasingly in situations where very complex parts need to be formed very quickly, for both prototypes and when it is an actual component to be used,” said Ken Lyon, chief executive officer of Virtual-Partners. “Eventually this capability will transform the way people will operate and the dynamics of situations where carriers can’t have replacement parts on hand.”
Part of that transformation will likely come in the form of private shops popping up in strategic locations to provide quick access to replacement parts. Transport Intelligence CEO John Manners-Bell said, “I think you’ll start to see at various port locations these 3D printing shops start to develop. At the moment parts are being flown around the world, but if these facilities are developed at strategic port locations, they’d be able to print a part as the ship was coming in.”
Lyon suggested that this could also take place at large airports to assist planes with technical issues on the ground. While printing facilities would likely start at large hubs, they could spread out as they cut airline costs and as the price of printers and materials declines.
Manners-Bell agreed, saying, “The aerospace industry is at the forefront of this technology because 3D printing can build, very quickly, lightweight parts. Obviously, the lighter and stronger the better for the aerospace industry.”
Lyon and Manners-Bell produced a whitepaper on 3D printing earlier this year that foresees a big opportunity for such shops as well as logistics companies that specialize in this on-demand, product lifecycle management space.
An area of concern as these services begin to arise is in existing infrastructure and companies that specialize in expediting mission critical parts. These companies will see air cargo and shipping volumes drop as printers become more accessible and more compact. If their business dries up, replacement-part clearinghouses will also see their demand drop.
The manufacturers of these parts will still do well, at least at the beginning, because they are trusted partners. “Printed parts would have to be from certified production facilities, you can’t just throw any part on an aircraft,” Lyon said. “But assuming it’s done by an existing certified component manufacturer, then this new system works. It’s a different environment.”
As the market for these devices matures, which can easily be 15 to 20 years down the line, logistics companies will also need to address the devices themselves. As 3D printers move to more locations around the world, supply chains focusing on raw materials for these devices will need to become more dynamic and flexible to meet the needs of companies employing the printers.
While parts and component shipments may drop off, the materials 3D printers use will slowly rise. Shipping lanes would likely shift away from markets that produce final goods to those that house more raw materials.
3D printing may even play a future role in some labor concerns we’re starting to see now. As wage inflation increases in markets like China, analysts have already begun predicting a rise in the near-shoring of manufacturing. Adding in 3D printing to the mix could help near-shored operations create a variety of mass-produced parts from the same production line.
“There doesn’t seem to be too much of a leap between printing as part of the manufacturing process and printing as part of the spare parts process,” Manners-Bell said.
Companies that specialize in engine parts, interchangeable pieces, and even pieced-together items like toys could simply go to a keyboard and select a new design to change their production lines, with no need to develop new molds, put new assembly-line procedures in place, or shift workers to new machines.
The eventuality of 3D printing is community or even in-home devices where consumers make a wide range of products where the bulk of the purchase cost comes from schematics and raw materials. While that’s still far off, shoring up your supply chain to address multiple new inputs and future client demands is never a bad thing.