Piece by Piece

Mar 25, 2019 • Features3D printingmanufacturingParts Pricing and Logistics

As part of a series of interviews with speakers from the 2019 Spare Parts Business Platform, Mark Glover spoke to Atanu Chaudhuri, an academic in additive manufacturing, about the challenges manufacturers face when building a business case for the 3D printing of spare parts.

Of all the technologies currently vying for the attention of field service professionals, 3D printing is the one that appeals most to the imagination.

Sure, Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence are exciting, and the use-case for both is becoming stronger. But how about a printer that prints a tangible, useful component? A spare part that an engineer can produce and integrate while out on a job. What if 3D printers with robot arms were the final part of a first-time fix process, working in tandem with selfmending, machine learning assets?

I say the above with tongue firmly in cheek. I think we’re a long way from a technician-free fixing procedure; in fact, I think the human, engineer element will always be a constant, but you can see why the technology gets the juices flowing.

That said, the concept of 3D printing or additive manufacturing is not as new as we might think and has been in a period of gestation for nearly 40 years. Its first milestone was in 1981 when Dr. Hideo Kodama from the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published an account of a working photopolymer rapid prototyping system. A machine that produced photo-hardened materials, corresponding to a cross-slice of a model, that when layered create 3D tangible parts.

Unfortunately, lack of funds meant Doctor Kodomo was unable to pursue his theories but American Charles Hull, in 1984 etched (or printed) his name in history by inventing stereolithography which used digital data to produce the 3D model. Then in the early 90s, the world’s first Selective Lasering Sintering (SLS) machine was invented, which shot out a powder, rather than a liquid, to build a solid (if slightly imperfect) 3D object.

The turn of the millennium saw the medical sector fully embrace 3D printing when over the space of ten years, scientists were able to create a miniature kidney, a prosthetic limb and bio-printed the first blood vessels using only human cells.
But where are we now with the technology and what manufacturing industries are really squeezing out the potential of additive manufacturing?

“We do not have enough people who can design a product for 3D printing..."

“The forerunners of the adoption of these technologies have been the aerospace and automotive sectors,” says Atanu Chaudhuri an Associate Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management at the University of Aalborg and an expert in additive manufacturing. “However, there are a lot of other industrial manufacturers who are exploring this but are at different stages of adoption.”

I recently recorded a podcast with Atanu, ahead of his presentation at the Spare Parts Business Platform in Stockholm, which focused on the 3D printing of manufactured spare parts. With producers at various stages of integration, I asked what challenges they faced.

“One of the most critical challenges is the lack of skills,” he says. “We do not have enough people who can design a product for 3D printing, who can understand the process and technology. However, I think the companies who have invested in the machines, they have taken a step forward, but it is always a costly investment and there has to be a strong business case.”

The business case is essential when discussing any adoption of technology not just in additive manufacturing but in other young technologies. Boards are keen to see a genuine return on its investment especially when it carries financial risk.
However, in the case of 3D printing, Chaudhuri urges companies to take a long-view. “If a company was to do a one-to-one comparison with existing manufacturing technology, it’s most likely that 3D printing will not be suitable,” he admits.

“But if you take a more life—cycle perspective and look beyond the cost on a part-to-part comparison or look at the usage of the part over a lifetime of the product, say 15 or twenty years, suddenly you will see a huge difference.

“You will not be having a lot of inventory, you reduce the inventory carrying costs and maybe the environment will benefit, you will use fewer materials and suddenly the business case looks much better,” he says.

Atanu is an enthusiastic, yet realistic advocate of the technology and its infrastructure. Alluding to his earlier point of training, he admits that universities can come under scrutiny for not providing enough skilled workers, however when I ask what inspires him to do what he does, he cites his students and the role they will eventually play in the future integration of additive manufacturing as a key influence.

“It’s a motivation for me to train the next generation of engineers, industrial engineers or supply chain professionals who are ready to take on the world of digital manufacturing.

“I get immense satisfaction when my students graduate and get positions at the top companies and I can continue working with them. That is the main motivation I have,” he concludes. 

You can listen to the Field Service Podcast with guest Atanu Chaudhuri here.