The number of applications for 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, continue to grow. The appeal for the technology is it has the potential to change manufacturers’ business models and supply chains themselves because it may be used to quickly produce parts rather than face potentially long lead times for certain products. Not only is there a subsequent time savings, the practice may also eliminate the need to store some physical inventory in warehouses.

 

For instance, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) announced this week it will begin making plastic parts produced for customers using 3D printing technologies as part of a pilot program. The company sees 3D printing as an opportunity to better serve customers, particularly those in need of parts which have been difficult to provide through traditional supply chain models—such as parts for older trucks or parts with very low or intermittent demand, a spokesperson explains. During this pilot phase, DTNA will release a controlled quantity of 3D printed parts and will seek feedback from customers and technicians receiving the parts. As part of the pilot, the company will also collect data on the parts performance as well as assess potential future demand for 3D printed parts.

 

To print the parts, DTNA partnered with 3D printing service bureau Technology House. The companies have already made the first parts available to customers using Selective Laser Sintering, a process which layers powder in a print chamber and then “selectively” melts a pattern with lasers before adding the next layer. The 3D printed parts have been validated to meet durability requirements and many will appear no different than standard parts to the untrained eye, according to DTNA. During the pilot phase, parts to be printed include nameplates, map pockets and plastic covers.

 

Furthermore, parts that are eligible for 3D printing are also stored in DTNA’s digital warehouse, which allows a part to be printed on-demand, further reducing lead times. Without the need to maintain tooling, these parts will remain available to customers when needed.

 

On-demand 3D printing also removes the need for holding physical inventory, says Jay Johnson, general manager, aftermarket supply chain, DTNA. Currently, the order process takes two to four weeks, but once the program is fully launched, parts will be able to be shipped in a few days. This capability has the potential to increase uptime for customers who may otherwise experience long wait times for a hard-to-find part, he says.

 

“Over the past five years, DTNA has made significant financial and intellectual investments in the supply chain network to deliver parts to our customers faster,” says Johnson. “We realize we must continue to innovate and we will invest in new processes including 3D printing. …so we can deliver parts to customers even quicker.”

 

The current increase in use of 3D printing isn't surprising, particularly as the cost of the technology comes down and it becomes more readily available. Possible applications though, span a wide range. For instance, automakers Volkswagen, BMW and others have used 3D printing for years in the process of rapid prototyping. What’s more, durability isn’t an issue for the parts, as shown by Russian cosmonauts at the International Space Station using the technology to create nanosatellites, and the U.S. Coast Guard using 3D printers to create spare parts on-board ships at sea. It will be interesting, however, to follow DTNA’s pilot and see how it may have an impact on the company’s aftermarket supply chain.

 

What are your thoughts on the use of 3D printing? Which applications do you think will see the most benefit?