3D Printing and The Future Of Field Service

[The following is a transcript of the 3D Printing-related material we submitted to Field Technologies in response to their request. The full article was published in the August 24, 2015 issue of the magazine; however, only some of this material actually made the cut (i.e., there are three other industry experts who also had their say in the Field Technologies piece).

Read our responses first, then read the Field Technologies piece to gain a perspective from among the four of us. A link is provided at the end of our Blog, for your convenience.]

What’s the Buzz about 3D Printing?

The thoughts about the buzz surrounding 3D printing’s use in field service are reminiscent of a similar buzz about RFIDs some years ago. Everybody is talking about 3D printing in terms of “Is it for real”, “Is it affordable?”, “Is it practical?” and “When will it be readily available?” And, of course, the answers to all of these questions are “yes”, and “now!”

As was in the earlier case with RFIDs, while everybody continued talking about the what, where and when of its ultimate adoption by the industry, the technology simply kept rolling out, first among the more progressive organizations (i.e., either on their own, or by the “mandate” of some of the larger, market leading organizations such as Walmart). However, while the debate raged on, the market seemed to embrace the “new” technology without much fanfare, on a steady and nicely paced-out basis. Before the less progressive organizations in the marketplace even knew it, RFIDs became fairly ubiquitous – and I see the same adoption scenario for 3D printing as well.

There are, however, some important differences that distinguish 3D printing from other “new” technologies. For example, the cost for implementing a global 3D printing capability is far more expensive than it was/is for an RFID network. Accordingly, while field service organizations of all types and sizes could launch an RFID solution fairly inexpensively, 3D printing – at least for the moment – may find itself used more prolifically by larger organizations at the start.

Further, RFID solutions are typically designed and implemented for the masses – that is, to track a large variety of products, parts and components in the field; whereas 3D printing – at least so far – is designed primarily for the special needs of organizations that cannot easily, or cost-effectively, stock infrequently-used parts, parts in remote places, or deal with the logistics of a growing installed base under their current management and support.

In any event, the buzz is certainly warranted! 3D printing is quickly becoming an important component of large organizations’ parts management programs and, as the cost for implementation and maintenance decreases over time, it will likely spread throughout the field service industry as more and more uses come to the forefront. Once again, while we’re all still talking about it, others are doing something about it! It’s already here!

What are Some of the Potential Use Cases for 3D Printing in Field Service?

It seems like services organizations have been forever struggling with the best way to manage spare parts availability and accessibility. For many, 3D printing can assist in both of these areas.

For decades, many services organizations have used the 80/20 rule when it comes to parts planning for the field. That is, have the field technicians carry the 80 percent of the most commonly used parts in their van, and maintain a stash of the 20 percent less frequently-used parts in a regional or national hub with availability via overnight delivery.

Over the years, this 80/20 rule may have morphed to a 60/40 or even a 50/50 rule for some organizations, due to increasing parts, inventory and logistics costs. However, even at these lower ratios, the associated costs for managing parts inventory have skyrocketed. As such, many organizations have been looking for alternative means by which they could still provide the necessary parts to their field technicians, cut the time required for accessing these parts, and getting the customer’s equipment back up and running as soon as possible. For many, 3D printing is not merely the best solution – it is the only solution!

Among the most attractive potential uses of 3D printing is the ability to print parts for users at remote locations, thereby cutting the time to complete the repair from several days to within hours. While the customary remote locations most often cited are typically somewhere in the plains of the great southwest, or the snow-covered northwest provinces of Canada, as the world market for field service support continues to grow exponentially, virtually any location not situated near a commercial hub may nowadays be considered as a “remote location”.

Perhaps the greatest remote location currently supported “in the field” is the International Space Station (ISS), which has already had several parts printed in deep space – along with some of the tools required to put them in their place! Talk about an otherwise expensive “truck roll!”

In some cases, the most intriguing uses of 3D printing in field service have come in the aerospace segment. In addition to NASA, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has also used 3D printing to print components such as protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts, resulting in cost savings of more than £300,000 (US$491,364) since adopting the technology, with another £1.2 million in savings expected by 2017. Rolls Royce is also using 3D printing to provide parts for its jet engines.

Further, as driverless cars begin entering the marketplace, empowered by the Internet of Things (IoT), what would make more sense than supporting these new technology transportation systems with 3D-printed parts? This, and other “new” applications of technology, will likely provide a significant breeding ground for highlighting the use of 3D-printed parts and components.

What Benefits Could 3D Printing Bring to the Field Service Industry?

The proliferation of 3D printing is not only limited to the manufacture of parts and components, but, even more importantly, to the design and refinement of these items before they even see the light of day in the marketplace. For example, according to Forbes, GE has developed a “radical new fuel injection systems for a jet engine” initially designed and built from an industrial 3D metal printer. Previously, the system had “21 separate parts, which needed to be produced, shipped to the same location, and then assembled.” However, the 3D-printed system has only one part – but is five times stronger, resulting in increased fuel efficiency of 15 percent, or just over US$1 million per year – per plane!

While most people look to the availability of parts for remote locations to represent the major benefit of using 3D printing, it is more likely that the most beneficial attributes will be manifested through advances in design and engineering (i.e., more easily demonstrable “what-if” scenarios, quicker design-to-test times, reduced R& D costs, etc.). However, where 3D printing could potentially be most disruptive (i.e., borrowing from the terminology normally associated with the IoT), is in the areas of how future design and engineering operations will be staffed and funded (i.e., less people and less funding needed?); the ability to make parts, components and systems less complex and more efficient (e.g., one part, rather than 21 parts, etc.); and the simplification of the overall parts supply chain (i.e., the reduction – or elimination – of some of the channel players currently involved in parts management and logistics, etc.). In fact, the entire parts supply chain could find itself disrupted by this new technology.

Do you See this Trend Taking Off? Why or Why Not? If So, When or How Rapidly?

This trend is already taking off! The early adopters have already been quite successful in implementing solutions that save time, save money, streamline the service supply chain and keep customers happy. If managed properly, this could be both the CSO’s and the CFO’s dream come true!

As more and more consumers learn more about 3D printing from features in trade journals like Field Technologies, through various LinkedIn posts and via social media, the push toward adoption is likely to get stronger.

It also won’t be long before consumers will be able to print their own souvenirs at seaside resorts or tourist attractions – you can even print your own life-size Paul McCartney figure. The double-sided push and promotion of 3D printing through both the commercial and consumer channels will likely lead to a higher demand for the technology as well.

Are You Aware of any Real-World Examples of How 3D Printing Is Successfully Being Used in Field Service Today?

So far, most industry observers have been focusing on the most dramatic uses of 3D printing to convey to the marketplace. However, the real story is the one unfolding at many organizations around the world who are finding that they can employ this new technology not only to save logistics and transportation costs, but design and engineering costs as well.

3D printing is not only to be used for manufacturing parts, but for the printing of the tools that are used to install them. It will also be used in the back rooms with respect to design, engineering and applications.

With the great success already experienced in, arguably, one of the most demanding vertical segments (i.e., aerospace, aviation, etc.) it will only be a matter of time before usage becomes even more widespread throughout all major services segments. Currently, people are using 3D printing to print complete homes, cars – and, yes, even Beatles! With great interest expressed by both the commercial and consumer segments, the receptivity to the use of 3D printing in both the B2B and B2C segments is likely to remain strong.

What other Comments Do You Have about 3D Printing that Our Readers Should Be Aware Of?

Of course, before any “new” technology can be successfully embraced by the marketplace, it must also be properly packaged, promoted and marketed. One trend that I foresee in the not-too-distant future is the packaging of product sales and service, in a 3D-delivered world. For example, the customer (i.e., business or consumer) would buy the 3D-printed product, and sign on for an extended warranty program based on 3D-printed service and support. It even sounds like they should be packaged together!

Oh – and by-the-way, while you’ve been reading this, more organizations have silently embedded 3D printing into their core service and support offerings (along with RFIDs)! Just saying!

[To read the Field Technologies article for which this information was prepared, please visit: http://www.fieldtechnologiesonline.com/doc/d-printing-and-the-future-of-field-service-0001.]