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How 3D printing could improve spare part supply chains

3D printing could be key to reducing inventory and making supply chains for spare parts more responsive. This is according to new research from Dr Atanu Chaudhuri at the School alongside colleagues at Aalborg University in Denmark.

The study looked at how the technology can be used to assist production of spare parts for manufacturers across multiple sectors, and the positive impact it could have on industry.

Uncertainty in the supply chain

Predicting the need for, and supplying, spare parts can be challenging for manufacturers as customers rarely want the same types and levels of items year on year – or even month on month.

To combat this uncertainty and to avoid being caught short, many companies adopt highly unsustainable and expensive contingency plans.

“So they can provide a good service and avoid lengthy ’downtime’ periods for customers, companies tend to keep high numbers of spare parts in different locations around the world in order to meet service level requirements. But this is costly and unsustainable.

3D printing is promising as a technology for spare parts production as it can handle the challenges of high variability, long lead times, low demand, and high stock-out costs.” Dr Chaudhuri

Timely and cost-effective yet challenging

The research reveals that 3D printing holds the potential to reduce customer wait times for replacement parts, shorten the supply chain – better for swift service and reducing a company’s carbon footprint – and can even help cut company costs whilst maintaining high quality.

Dr Chaudhuri does note, however, that switching from traditional manufacturing to 3D printing is not straightforward. He notes a number of significant challenges which have, in previous attempts, made it near impossible to implement the technology effectively. This includes:

  • limitations on the availability of appropriate materials
  • the overwhelming range of different parts needing to be designed for 3D re-production
  • possible quality risks
  • legal consequences if manufacturers violate intellectual property rights by recreating parts designed by someone else.

Design Science

Dr Atanu Chaudhuri and colleagues suggest an approach which will enable manufacturers to adopt 3D printing technologies more easily for their spare parts production.

By applying a design science approach, they set out a process for manufacturers to identify the most suitable spare parts for the 3D printing process from a wider portfolio.

The study provides further support for manufacturers by developing a set of generic guidelines for manufacturers in order to identify suitable spare parts for future 3D printing. Steps include companies holding workshops that involve the maintenance and service technicians in order to help identify the potential for 3D printing in current and future products, and identifying which spare parts create problems for maintenance and service due to lack of availability, complexity or issues with durability.

“Deploying technology can only solve half of the problem. To enable 3D printing to be of real benefit to manufacturing, it’s important for companies to combine both ‘data-driven’ and ‘expert driven’ approaches to select the most suitable parts. Whilst algorithms can identify commonly needed parts as candidates for 3D printing, it is our human experts who can judge feasibility and possibility of using them.” Dr Chaudhuri

Impact and further research

The study is already having an impact with manufacturers, who have invited Dr Chaudhuri to share his findings and assist them in adopting his recommendations.

Additionally, the study’s methodology has been further updated for application in Free-Form Injection Moulding, a technology used to produce customised moulds using 3D printing. This technology, Dr Chaudhuri says, will enable companies to produce customised parts in limited quantities, supporting prototype development as well as producing spare parts for customisable products. This research was conducted in close collaboration with Addifab – the pioneering company behind the development of Free-Form Injection Moulding technology.

More information

  • The full research paper ‘In search for classification and selection of spare parts suitable for additive manufacturing: a literature review’, along with a collection of research papers by Dr Chaudhuri and his research colleagues on the theme of part selection for 3D printing can be found here.
  • Read more information about Dr Atanu Chaudhuri or his previous work on how blockchain could improve sustainability in the supply chain.
  • Explore our IMPACT hub which has a range of articles on our research.