These are interesting times for 3D printing because recent developments further demonstrate how the technology can not only be used to quickly produce parts rather than face long lead times, but also produce parts able to be used in extreme environments. What’s more, the technology also has the potential to change how manufacturers operate by creating new manufacturing strategies.


For example, the Associated Press reports that spacewalking cosmonauts released five nanosatellites by hand from the International Space Station this week. What’s intriguing is that the little satellites, no more than one to two feet in size, were produced almost entirely with a 3D printer, although they do contain regular electronics. The experiment is intended to show researchers how 3D-printed parts weather the space environment.


The U.S. Coast Guard also announced it’s using 3D printers to create spare parts on-board ships. Although the technology has already been used on-board ships to produce spare parts, it’s now being trialed more widely to print parts which aren’t normally kept on vessels and which may be difficult to source. The Coast Guard says this will improve mission readiness and logistical support.


“Sometimes those parts have lead times of weeks…maybe months,” Captain Joseph Dugan, program manager for the National Security Cutter Program, wrote on the official Coast Guard blog. “Sometimes manufacturers no longer make the parts, and need to retool a production line in order to make us the part we need.”


Finally, Mercedes-Benz Trucks announced recently that it’s printing metal spare and replacement parts. This is a continuation of the company’s plan to begin 3D printing plastic or composite spare parts for certain European market trucks in late 2016. It may have seemed the plan would have limited applications or advantages, but the company’s expansion into new materials could open the door for new markets.


For example, Mercedes-Benz noted that the first metal parts it’s printing are aluminum, and “these excel with almost 100 percent density and greater purity than conventional die-cast aluminum parts,” an article in Fleet Owner reports. The 3D printing process could deliver items with a material/structural advantage, which has also been touted as a reason for using the technology to make parts from plastic and similar materials.


3D printing—especially if it can be used to successfully produce items from a wider range of materials—can offer an improved method for providing spare parts and faster service for older model vehicles. After all, older vehicles are a diminishing fraction of companies’ business, and, while necessary, maintaining parts inventory can tie up significant capital for manufacturing; shipping, distribution and storage of parts; and maintaining and storing production tooling to make those parts.


“Especially when they have complex structures, 3D-printed metal parts in small numbers can be produced cost-effectively as infrequently requested replacement parts, special parts and for small and classic model series,” a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson says in the article. “Conceivable areas of use are peripheral engine parts made of metal, in-engine parts and also parts in cooling systems, transmissions, axles or chassis.”


Although 3D printing is mostly known for applications using or when traditional production and distribution is slow and costly, I was also interested to read about its possible broader use in manufacturing strategies. Writing recently on IndustryWeek, Kent Firestone, COO at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, which offers 3D printing and custom manufacturing solutions, contends that the technology can be used to break down manufacturing silos because using 3D printing in conjunction with traditional manufacturing allows users to realize the benefits of both types of production. For example, he explains, companies can use 3D printing to build jigs and fixtures, validate tools, and for bridge production, helping reduce production costs and lead times for large-volume production jobs using traditional manufacturing processes.


Does your company used 3D printed parts? If so, is the process part of a larger, overall manufacturing or supply chain strategy?