Opportunities for AM in maintenance

Additive manufacturing has established itself in a growing number of sectors, and could contribute significant added value to maintenance too – the technology is constantly evolving and new opportunities are opening up every day.

The key difference between additive manufacturing (AM) and conventional design techniques is that AM involves adding materials rather than taking them away, thus offering an unprecedented degree of design freedom – with AM, there are practically no design restrictions at all. In principle, even the most complex shapes can be made without any assembly or fitting. It is plain to see that AM has massive potential for application across a broad array of sectors, including maintenance.

Does the range of possible applications include a virtual warehouse that would enable component designs to be stored digitally and printed out as needed? Probably not, as it will likely always be cheaper to produce standard components using conventional methods. The equipment needed for AM will always cost money, so the decision on whether or not to apply the technology for a component will depend on that component’s price, complexity and general availability.

A virtual warehouse is primarily a source of added value for special components that are not required frequently and/or have long production times. Using AM to make these components would allow considerable savings on the cost of a spare parts warehouse, since less ‘sleeping’ capital and less space would be required – after all, a few tonnes of powder take up far less room than hundreds of parts.

Evolving technology 

(Part-)virtual warehouses are not a reality yet, partly because of the high cost price and long printing times of AM equipment. However, all that could change relatively quickly. For instance, producers are working hard on improving their devices’ speed: HP and Carbon have launched 3D printers that can make a component in just six minutes, whereas other devices need four to six hours on average. If there are no real disadvantages to these faster solutions, then we might be well on the way to large-scale AM.

Naturally, that would have a positive impact on the equipment’s price. At the moment, a lot of work is being done on the raw materials for AM too. At present, only a limited number of powders are available on the market, but many more will be required if it is to be possible for all conventionally-produced products to be made using AM techniques. The range of metal alloys and plastics (including filaments) on offer is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years. Last but not least, R&D is also being conducted with an eye to process automation. These days, AM still requires a lot of manual intervention. Once the technology can be integrated into the production chain, its cost price will fall and its manufacturing speed will increase.

Investing in AM pays off

Even today, making your own components is possible with current AM and raw material solutions, which are generally used to prepare prototypes. That said, there is nothing to stop maintenance departments from optimising certain components by applying AM methods. Is it not so often the case that maintenance workers have ideas on how to improve components based on their experience, but cannot convince the machine supplier to make the changes?

Investing in AM is especially worthwhile for businesses with complex production equipment. Once you have AM equipment on-site, you can start experimenting with component manufacturing. This is a real chance to kill two birds with one stone: you can look for creative solutions for optimising your equipment through customised components, whilst also taking the first step towards a virtual spare parts warehouse.

Interested in printing your own complex components or improving equipment performance through component optimisation? On 20 April, Sirris is holding a 3D printing masterclass at the Maintenance trade fair, in partnership with the fair’s organisers. The topics covered will include the benefits of AM technology for spare parts technology management, how things stand with the intellectual property issues around designs, and which applications are economically viable. Check our agenda for more information about the masterclass!

(Source: Flam3D)