Is Printing 3D Parts in Field Technicians’ Vans a Cool Idea – or Crazy?

Two years ago, Gomocha was honored to be a finalist for the NVSM Innovation Award, presented annually by the Dutch Association for Service Management to the best innovation in the field of service management. Unfortunately, our Field Mobility Solution FMP360 didn’t take the top prize.

Instead, the Innovation Award was presented to RDM Makerspace and Innovation Quarter, whose work explored the possibilities of 3D printing of spare parts on ships at sea or in ports. 3D printers for shipping companies and port operators will enable maintenance crews to print their own replacement parts, helping them avoid dangerous situations and eliminating down time that otherwise would have occurred as they waited for parts to be delivered in the middle of the ocean.

3D printing c Coast guard Compass

 A replacement part for this remotely operated vehicle was printed in the Arctic aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The disappointment of missing out on the top award was offset by the fact that it was given to a company that makes such brilliant use of technology. Ever since hearing about 3D printing of replacement parts, I’ve followed advancements in 3D printing with an eye toward understanding if and when it may have relevance in the world of field service operations.

A Brief History of 3D Printing

Many readers will remember the skepticism that some people expressed when the futuristic tiny-but-mighty devices like Apple Watch and “ear buds” were introduced. They doubted that these devices could allow users to communicate as effectively as is possible through computers, phones and tablets.

Similarly, many people have been (and still are) skeptical that printers can produce plastic and metal components. And, while 3D printing has moved from concept to reality – a reality even for consumers – it has not happened overnight. In fact, 3D printing has been around for decades.

“Although 3D printing is often perceived to be a new technology, it has been in use for almost 30 years; as such it has found a wide range of applications to date, including the production of spare parts.”
“Will 3D Printing Eliminate the Warehouse?”
by stratasys, The 3D Printing Solutions Company

An article in Harvard Business Review (July 2018) refers to 3D printing as “additive manufacturing” and cites breakthroughs – such as faster and more precise printer heads, faster powder-jetting systems that use binding agents and adhesives, and electronics-embedding processes – that will speed the adoption of the technology for more-common uses. The author believes the technology is fulfilling its promise:

“A printer costing less than $1 million can replace a $20 million machine, making it feasible to have many smaller production sites and locate them closer to customers.”

 3D printing model

While 3D printing may be a long way from being widely adopted by consumers to produce spare parts in their own homes for, say, their dishwasher, advances in 3D metal printing indicate that scenario is not far off. Some examples of how the technology is currently being used follow:

  • HP is planning its first 3D printer, the Jet Fusion model, to print metal parts for manufacturers
  • GE has been printing metal fuel nozzles for jet engines
  • Nike is printing metal cleats for shoes
  • Porsche and other companies are printing 3D parts for classic cars whose original component designs are unavailable (door handles, clutch release levers, crank arms and many others)
  • Online 3D printing service provider Shapeways is printing parting for high-end baby strollers
  • 3d2go.com offers on-demand 3D printing of common household items, such as appliance knobs, handles and nozzles, as well as hard-to-find items like replacement lens caps for cameras 

In the consumer arena, there is already some activity in 3D printing on in-home printers. For example, digital designs for the small pieces that hold together “flat pack furniture” (such as is produced by IKEA) are available for free on Thingiverse.com. Consumers can download the designs and print components at home on low-end 3D printers.

3D printed propellor

Why Are So Many People So Interested in 3D Printing?

For companies that need spare parts on hand to support the equipment they service, 3D printing will mean reduced inventory costs. They will no longer need to stockpile parts to repair customers’ equipment; instead, when a failure occurs in a machine or device, they will create the replacement part on demand, obviating the need to keep it in stock.

Printing parts on demand will also eliminate problems resulting from “built-in obsolescence.” This means that a replacement parts manager will no longer need to tell a customer that their HVAC equipment can’t be repaired because the parts to repair it are obsolete and no longer available (which in many cases necessitates that the customer purchase a whole new HVAC unit). If technicians never have to deliver the bad news about obsolete parts, but instead they download a digital design of the failed-but-obsolete part and print it through a 3D printing service or at their main warehouse, that points toward another important benefit of 3D printers – happier customers.

While 3D printing of spare parts may not be universally available or even well-understood by the general public, the concept is believable enough that when BMW spoofed its employees and the public on April Fool’s Day, it wasn’t recognized as a joke for a few weeks. The company issued a press release on April 1, 2018, announcing the introduction of BMW Motorrad iParts, which would allow motorcycle-mounted 3D printers to create spare parts on demand – wherever they may be needed, including in the desert or on a mountaintop – with designs that could be downloaded from the BMW iCloud. Neither BMW nor the world is quite there yet, but it’s not inconceivable that 3D printing will someday be that reliable and convenient

BMW Mobile 3D printing for spare parts

What if Field Technicians Could Print Parts in Their Own Trucks or Vans?

Envision this scenario: Say your HVAC customer runs a health care facility in a large city. Those HVAC units need to stay up and running 24/7 for the health and safety of patients and staff. What if your technicians are called to the facility, they identify the failed part, and they download digital design data from the manufacturer? What if, as a service and repair specialist, you could print the replacement part on the customer’s on-site printer and it’s installed the same day? You must agree that would make the customer happy, right?

It may be hard to imagine, but what if maintenance and repair technicians in the field could print spare parts right in their van, right on the customer’s location? No more down time between the time the problem part is identified and ordered and the time it’s delivered and installed. This type of on-demand printing of parts would not only increase efficiency, reduce costs and lead to greater customer satisfaction, it would also be a huge competitive advantage.

While Gomocha cannot offer customers a blueprint for the 3D printing process or a roadmap and timeline for when this will become a reality for technicians in the field, we can promise that the flexibility of FMP360 will help your organization adopt, manage and support 3D replacement parts printing, should that scenario ever become a reality in your operation.

To experience first-hand the flexibility of FMP360, register for a demo customized for your unique organization, or download our whitepaper on the importance of flexibility in a mobile field service solution. And as always, we welcome your questions or comments. Call 240-403-6001 or email fmp360@gomocha.com.

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