3D Printing and The Digitization Of Field Service

3D Printing

This blog post has been reprinted with the permission of Field Technologies Online.

3D printing has received a great deal of attention by the media in recent months as this technology is rapidly being adopted in a broad array of market segments. Also known as additive layer manufacturing (ALM), 3D printing creates items using computer-aided design (CAD) and then builds them by adding thin layers of powder, melted plastic, aluminum, or other materials on top of each other. 3D printing requires fewer traditional raw materials and produces up to 90 percent less waste then traditional manufacturing. As a result, 3D printing is less costly. Furthermore, 3D printing enables companies to compress the supply chain and cycle time associated with bringing products to market.

The Role Of 3D Printing In Field Service
Indeed, 3D printing is a hot market. According to Canalys Research, the global market for 3D printers is estimated to reach $20.2 billion by 2019. This represents a sixfold increase from 2014 when the market was only $3.3 billion. Fueling this growth is the fact that 3D printers are becoming more affordable and mainstream. Given this trend, it is no wonder that the field service industry is quickly developing use cases for this technology. One example is Siemens, which uses 3D printing to make replacement parts for gas turbines. Rather than waiting weeks for an ordered spare part to arrive, Siemens can print the part and ship same day. As a result, Siemens has lowered repair time by 90 percent, which means less downtime per customer when it comes to gas turbines.

Another use case that has been proposed involves equipping service vans with 3D printers, permitting field engineers to print replacement parts on demand. This may not be practical or feasible. Many companies are moving toward variable workforce models and cutting back on company-owned vehicles. Even though 3D printing is faster than traditional manufacturing, it still requires a lot of time to print certain types of parts. This means that service calls would be extended, leading to longer customer downtime and lower productivity for the field service organization (FSO). 3D printing is also not a one-size-fits-all solution and can’t print complex parts. 3D printers vary according to the types of additive manufacturing methods employed, the types of materials utilized, and the size of the product manufactured. Unless all replacement parts have the same specifications, an FSO would need to install multiple printers in each van, which would add to the balance sheet and overhead expense structure of FSOs.

Despite these shortcomings, the concept of pushing the 3D printing closer to the customer and shortening the supply chain is very compelling. To capitalize on this idea, UPS has launched a full-scale, on-demand 3D printing manufacturing network. This network will leverage UPS’ existing global logistics network by embedding the On-Demand Production Platform and 3D Printing Factory from Fast Radius in 60 of UPS’ U.S.-based The UPS Store locations. UPS will also partner with SAP to build an end-to-end offering that marries SAP’s supply chain software with UPS’ on-demand manufacturing and global logistics network. This will simplify the production process from parts digitization and certification, order-to-manufacturing, and delivery. Now UPS’ customers can manufacture parts in the quantity they need, when they need them, and where they need them.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this solution is that instead of trying to force innovation (i.e., 3D printing) into our traditional way of thinking about spare parts management (i.e., in-house parts networks), UPS has turned service parts logistics into an on-demand economy business a la Uber. Under this model, the value for the FSO is not in the physical assets it manages (e.g., parts, 3D printers), but in the digital assets (e.g., designs, drawings, etc.) it owns. Eventually, developments in nanotechnology will enable 3D printing of all types of parts, even complex ones like microprocessors and capacitors. This creates the potential for FSOs to transform themselves into asset-light businesses. As a result they can deliver a better return on investment, lower profit volatility, greater flexibility, and higher scalability, things that weren’t possible a few years ago. UPS is of course an early entrant to the on-demand market for 3D printing. Look for more companies to offer similar solutions in the near future.

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