How 3D Printing Is Changing Production Models

Aug. 9, 2019
Additive manufacturing is no longer just for prototypes. Its increasing popularity and technical capabilities have pushed it into position to change the way manufacturers manage their spare parts inventory.

No matter how technologies change, or what new innovations break into the mainstream, the basic goals of manufacturing remain the same: Reduce unplanned downtime, reduce costs, eliminate unnecessary waste, etc. How fortunate it is that 3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) is one of those cool, innovative technologies that is finding itself a very nice spot in the realm of day-to-day cost and time savings. Not only can it be used to produce interesting and previously impossible designs, it has also become a useful way to change spare parts management.

When a system goes down, making the repairs needed to get it back up and running can be time-consuming. Even more so if the part that needs replacing is no longer readily available. With the right program in place, additive manufacturing can build that part on demand—whether through reverse engineering, digital files from the component supplier, or perhaps through the supplier itself.

In recent years, advances in the printing technology, in the materials that can be used, and the software control of the end-to-end workflow have fundamentally changed the way parts can be made with additive manufacturing, says John Nanry, co-founder and chief product officer at Fast Radius, which provides 3D printing services.

Some companies, like Fast Radius, have been launched specifically to take advantage of those developments. Some existing suppliers are creating pockets of expertise in additive manufacturing in order to take control of their own supply chains, changing the way they’re able to deliver products to their customers.

One of the parts that Moog is additively manufacturing, providing licenses to customers to print parts on demand, is its integrated servo actuator.

Moog, which makes systems centered around motion control and actuation, can now provide replacement parts using 3D printing—getting the parts to where they’re needed faster and printing them closer to the point of need.

To show off what 3D printed parts could mean for the supply chain, Moog teamed up with Microsoft, ST Engineering, and Air New Zealand for a practical demonstration in the aerospace industry. For this project, Air New Zealand flew a Boeing 777 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Los Angeles, simulating damage to a cabin part en route. The air crew notified maintenance in Auckland that they needed a part or the plane could lose use of a business premiere class seat on the return leg.

Air New Zealand maintenance checked its part inventory and found no replacement parts available at the Los Angeles station. Enter 3D printing. Through this collaboration, Air New Zealand could source a digital part to be printed by a 3D printer in Los Angeles and sent directly to the airport, ready and waiting for the aircraft as soon as it landed. The maintenance team could do the repair after the plane landed without losing any uptime or revenue.

A scenario like this—which is equally relevant to machine parts on a factory floor—not only significantly reduces the time it takes to get a new part, but also nearly eliminates non-value costs associated with the supply chain, such as packaging, shipping, warehousing, inventory management, and customs.

Warehousing costs can be a big driver for pursuing additive manufacturing for spare parts. Roughly 25 percent of a part’s cost is in its warehousing, according to Nanry. So having a technology on hand that can enable an OEM or part supplier to provide low-volume spare parts replacement to its customers and fill orders on demand can be a big deal for both the supplier and the customer.

Fast Radius was launched about four years ago specifically to help manufacturers take advantage of the capabilities that 3D printing has to offer. Headquartered in Chicago, where several of its executives helped build the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), Fast Radius has a technology platform that helps clients identify potential applications for additive manufacturing, conduct engineering and economic evaluations, and accelerate new product development. With an extensive collection of HP Multi Jet Fusion technology, Fast Radius also helps its customers manufacture industrial-grade parts at scale.

As part of this work, Fast Radius helped Husqvarna—which supplies outdoor power products for forest, park, and garden care—screen and identify parts that could be produced at production scale and quality using additive manufacturing.

Husqvarna is using 3D printing for spare parts management as part of a sustainability program it created in 2016. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes, which require high minimum order quantities, additive manufacturing enables production volumes as small as one. With the ability to produce only as many parts as its customers need at a time, Husqvarna produces less material waste, no obsolete parts, and a lower carbon footprint.

Without this 3D printing program, if a customer needed a part that wasn’t readily available, it could take weeks to replenish; or it might not be available at all if it were a part that had reached its end of life. Now, if a replacement part is hosted in the Fast Radius Virtual Warehouse, Fast Radius can produce and deliver the part in days.

Through its Digital Manufacturing Network, HP works with a variety of industrial customers such as Jaguar Land Rover and Vestas (which makes wind turbines) about how to use its Multi Jet Fusion technology to advance in-house and aftermarket capabilities. As part of a pilot program, HP is also using its own additive technology to print spare parts for users of its traditional printers. In one example, a client’s HP DesignJet 510 printer will soon be discontinued. To ensure a longer life of the printer and continued spare parts, HP is using regional HP 3D printing suppliers to provide those parts.

With the success of the pilot program, HP is qualifying more spare parts to be printed with its 3D printing technology. The company foresees being able to provide spare parts in a more sustainable way, making it more cost-effective while minimizing warehousing and shipping, and improving customer satisfaction.

HP used its own Multi Jet Fusion technology to print parts for its 3D printers. This part is located inside the build unit of the new HP Jet Fusion 5200 series to generate vibration to fluidize the powder to fill the layering. The part was redesigned to reduce assembly of 30 parts to just six.

Reverse engineering replacements

There are times when an equipment user might find it more expedient to reverse engineer a failed part—getting a system back up and running quicker and more cheaply. During a presentation at the Automation World Conference two years ago, Thomas Doney, expert engineer at Nestlé Development Center, mentioned that Nestlé has a policy against using 3D printing for failing equipment components.

Following up with Doney for this article, he expressed concerns about whether materials used in additive manufacturing would be among the short list of approved materials approved by CFR 21 and Nestlé’s own standards. But he’s also concerned about what the ability to print their own parts would do to their relationship with the OEM.

“Our filling and packaging machinery suppliers, who we partner with for their expertise, have as part of their revenue stream the sale of spare and replacement parts,” Doney says. “In a long-term relationship, it is probably not wise to cut off that portion of their business model.”

In some cases, though, companies might want to use reverse engineering to create parts that are no longer available. As part of its business in pumping solutions, Sulzer uses a range of techniques and technologies to make spare parts for all kinds of rotating equipment. “When a design drawing is not available, reverse engineering enables maintenance providers to manufacture new parts from the original component,” notes Stephen Dunlevy, vice president of operations and factory general manager for Sulzer.

Azoth is a company formed specifically to provide spare parts through additive manufacturing. Its parent company, Production Services Management Inc. (PSMI), operates tool cribs in more than 250 industrial manufacturing sites, including many of the world’s largest automotive and industrial equipment manufacturers. Often dealing with difficult-to-source parts or costly small batches, PSMI was looking for a better way to source machine parts. It created the wholly owned Azoth, which partnered with 3D printer manufacturer Rize to provide customers with on-site additive manufacturing options, building digital tool cribs.

Azoth refers to the new system as TOMO (take one, make one). “Take one out of inventory, make one to replace it,” says Cody Cochran, key account manager at Azoth. “The overarching goal of what we’re trying to achieve is to transform physical inventory into digital inventory that can be printed on demand.”

Azoth engineers design and reverse engineer a wide range of functional service parts, from kitting trays and pulleys to molds, tooling and machine spares. The success of that program has reduced some part costs by as much as 98 percent and lead times by as much as eight weeks.

In one case, Azoth began 3D printing torque gun holders for assembly components. Instead of stocking the component at a cost of $200 per part and with a lead time of four weeks, they print the part on demand in one day at a cost of $45 per part, cutting the cost and lead time each by 4X.

For another customer, Azoth designed a mold with unusual geometry for a custom polypropylene seal in SolidWorks and printed it on a Rize One 3D printer. The mold was ready for testing in one day at a cost of $30 vs. six to eight weeks and $4,000 for a machined mold.

Sulzer creates new components by using sand for a 3D printed mold.

3D printing molds

It is not uncommon to design molds with 3D printing rather than the part itself. Sulzer, for example, sometimes uses laser metal deposition techniques to create obsolete replacement parts directly, but the company’s efforts are focused more on 3D printing the molds that are then used to build the parts with traditional manufacturing methods. “When creating 3D molds, there are no material limitations on the parts being cast,” Dunlevy says.

To create the 3D drawing needed for the mold, Sulzer uses laser scanners and coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) to create precision computer models. They have a range of additive manufacturing equipment, including 3D sand printers, to build molds using the final CAD drawings. “Using layers of sand and adhesive, the 3D printer can create a mold that will withstand the high temperatures of molten metal that will form the new component,” Dunlevy explains.

This process typically takes 24-48 hours. Depending on the size of the components, however, multiple molds could be printed at the same time. “This process is hugely faster than using more traditional mold-making techniques,” Dunlevy adds.

Even better is the efficiency—or yield—of the additive techniques compared with traditional casting processes, according to Dunlevy. “The yield of a casting is defined as the weight of the casting divided by the weight of the metal poured,” he explains. “Traditional methods offer yields around 50 percent while 3D printing techniques can improve this to 90 percent, saving significant materials and energy.”

Automation supplier Emerson, which launched an additive manufacturing program about five years ago, also works a great deal with molds. Although the process to make the casting is still identical to how casting has been done traditionally, the product is faster to market because Emerson doesn’t have to make the physical pattern for the mold.

“At a foundry, every part currently starts with a physical pattern, which is used as a tool to make multiple molds,” explains Rebecca Rutishauser, director of global manufacturing additive metal technology for Emerson. Each mold is used only once because it’s broken to get the casting out. “With 3D printed molds, new products can be brought to market faster as there’s no need to make that physical pattern [which usually takes eight or more weeks to make]. And then we also have greater flexibility to provide molds to a local foundry to help regionalize the supply base to wherever the customer needs that product.”

Additive manufacturing also lets Emerson experiment with how the molds are designed. “We can design the molds differently in ways that increase manufacturing efficiency and allow for new product designs,” Rutishauser says. “We can design different ways for the metal to enter and flow through that mold design.”

Designing for additive manufacturing

The ability to modify designs in a way that only additive manufacturing can print them has long been a key benefit of the technology. Aerospace is a fertile ground to apply additive manufacturing, for example, because of the ability to print lightweight parts while maintaining the strength, notes Bill Massaro, director of advanced manufacturing for Moog.

“Our engineers have been trained in how to design specifically for additive manufacturing,” he adds. “It is a whole different way of thinking about how you design parts because of the flexibility and some limitations the technology gives you.”

Emerson has an additive manufacturing R&D facility in Marshalltown, Iowa, and has more recently opened a pilot production facility at its campus in Singapore as well. The group works on projects for the whole company, but the valve division is the farthest along with designs that are already in production and has several products that are going through the design funnel for 3D printing, Rutishauser notes.

“It’s definitely changing the designs we can achieve with valves,” she says. “We had a trim that was designed over a decade ago. We patented it but we had no way to make it because of the way the hole passages were on the inside of this particular cage. They just were not manufacturable with current machining technology. With 3D printing, we can now make that design.”

Rutishauser also emphasizes how important it is to build the know-how to design specifically for 3D printing. Although printing parts specifically for production use is a move well beyond the days of pure prototyping, prototyping is an important step in the additive manufacturing journey.

“I think the biggest hurdle when you first start getting into this is learning how to design for additive manufacturing to take advantage of the design capabilities and not being limited by how we designed in the past,” she says.

Printing expertise

The operation of the 3D printer itself is not a task to take lightly. As Nanry puts it, “It does take much more than just plugging the machine into the wall and pressing print.”

Dunlevy notes the high degree of expertise needed to create parts with additive manufacturing. “Throughout the process—from dimensioning to metallurgy and final machining—creating durable, precision parts requires not only expertise but also cutting-edge scanning, processing, machining, and testing facilities,” he says. “The technology itself is constantly evolving. But for high-performance parts, the levels of expertise required will remain the same.”

Developing your own additive manufacturing capabilities in-house would take considerably more effort and monetary resources than outsourcing. Emerson, however, thought it was worth the time and expense to develop that expertise internally. “What we wanted to do internally was develop our technology so that we could marry it to our product technology to make custom designs,” Rutishauser says. “So what we’ve been doing with our expertise is working on both design for additive manufacturing and learning how to manufacture these parts with the technology.”

Azoth has a competency center in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it can do some of the 3D printing for its customers—“all the parts that require a little bit of know-how,” Cochran says. But the idea is to get the additive manufacturing capabilities closer to where they’re needed. “Our goal is to keep putting printers on site in customer facilities.”

This is part of what makes Rize a good fit for Azoth’s efforts. In its business, Rize has specifically focused on how to make 3D printing more inclusive, says Andy Kalambi, Rize’s CEO. “We’re trying to make it easy, safe, and something where you can depend on the parts,” he says. “We want the technology to be easy, so somebody with 15 minutes of training can start operating the printer.”

That has to do not only with how the machine itself is operated, but also pre- and post-operating procedures. Rize has also worked at making the machines safer and easier to use in any environment. “We want it to fit anywhere—in a tool room, in an MRO [maintenance, repair, and operations] crib,” Kalambi says. “To be able to do that, it should be perfectly safe, with no emissions.”

Rize’s Augmented Deposition technology enables printing with minimal post-processing and the sustainable use of safe, non-toxic, and recyclable materials.

“People have not addressed the safety aspect of how easy and safe it should be,” Kalambi contends. “Once something is safe, a lot of people will want to use it.”

Working with metal, however, still requires a more standard approach to 3D printing. Azoth does all of its metal 3D printing in its competency center today, Cochran notes. “It’s a very involved process, so it’s not something that’s realistic for us to roll out to our 252 customer facilities,” he says. “It’s expensive and it requires engineers to run the systems.”

The technology will undoubtedly continue to advance, however. “We have some desktop metal printing systems that I think we’ll get closer and closer to rolling out to the shop floor,” Cochran says. “But when you’re talking about tight tolerance, precision products, we really require the technical team to do that. So we can’t necessarily roll it out to all of our plants to people who don’t have experience at it now.”

Emerson’s Cavitrol Hex trim, which helps the cavitation in rotary valves, was specifically designed to be made with additive manufacturing.

Material integrity concerns

It’s also important to take the steps necessary to understand how the materials you might be working with can affect the design. “A manufacturer using 3D printing techniques to create new parts needs to be able to run multiple tests on both the original parts and the new component,” Dunlevy says. “It is important to establish the correct alloy for manufacturing as well as checking the composition of the new component.”

Material development is an important first step in the part design. “With 3D printing, we started with material development, and that included printing many, many test samples with different parameters on the printers so that we understood everything about the material itself and then how the material interacted with it that impacted the material properties,” Rutishauser says. “And then the next step in designing 3D printed parts would be taking an approved material and testing new product design.”

Additive manufacturing has seen more and more innovation on the materials side over the past five years, Nanry says. “It’s really opened up the aperture where material properties are acceptable for the usage condition needed for those applications.”

Standards as a whole, including material standards, are a work in progress, according to Jim Hartnett, market manager for additive manufacturing at Moog. He points to the alignment efforts of America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing, managed and operated by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining. “They go through and take a look at all the different additive manufacturing standards that are out there to identify alignment issues and gaps—things that still need to get done,” Hartnett says. “There’s a lot of work being done right now to try to generate knowledge so that there’s confidence in mechanical properties.”

But as far as any concern about 3D printed products vs. their traditionally made counterparts, there is “no more or less concern about the integrity of materials additively produced compared to more traditional uses,” Nanry says. No matter the material used, parts are taken through whatever steps are needed to qualify them, just as with traditionally manufactured parts.

That qualification process does need to be tweaked a bit, however. Many of the typical approaches for qualification are based on legacy manufacturing processes, where it’s typical to do an initial run of 1,000 or 5,000 parts, Nanry says. “With additive, where there are ways where you can print one-off parts,” he says, “you need different ways of approaching part qualification.”

With so many variables to control in 3D printing, mechanical properties really are dependent on the process, according to Hartnett, who says that developmental focus is on maintaining repeatability and improving machine-to-machine variability. “Somebody will develop a process for a single part in a single material on a single machine down to the serial number. That’s not really sustainable for any kind of expansion of production,” he says. “It’s fine for now, but the industry is really working out how to get beyond that.”

Metal 3D printing has come a long way in providing more consistent material properties, Massaro adds. “The repeatability of machines to produce parts consistently is still a concern, but the next generation of machines are showing improvement.”

Although some materials might be more difficult to work with than others, they can offer benefits that make it worth going through the testing for additive manufacturing. “Every material has its own nuances, and each requires different development times and different things we need to focus on in the development,” Rutishauser says. “For example, we do parts in titanium. That’s tough to work with because it’s highly flammable. But we developed procedures internally so that we can print pulp and paper valves in titanium [which will last longer in bleach lines].”

The changing 3D stage

Additive manufacturing and the technologies supporting it are constantly evolving, Dunlevy notes. “The range of materials, the speed of manufacture, and the size of parts that can be created will all improve in the future,” he says.

For those not already involved in 3D printing, it might be a good time to consider your options. “Emerson was an early adopter in additive manufacturing because we see this as a game changer in the future,” Rutishauser says. “Our investments here are already translating into new production-ready designs that help our valve customers solve tougher problems faster. And we expect to see more of these new products in the future for all of Emerson’s divisions as those divisions go through that learning process in how to design for additive.”

Additive manufacturing is still primarily an R&D activity, Hartnett says. “Moog definitely jumped in pretty heavily. We trained up as many people as we have, also going to our customers and partnering with them,” he says. “It’s a very forward-looking initiative that the company’s taking.”

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