Think about an inkjet printer having six cartridges printing simultaneously. Instead of inks of different colours, these cartridges hold materials such as various metals, plastics, and ceramics in each cartridge. Many of us have already witnessed these printers in producing artefacts by adding materials layer after layer. It's fun to produce toys or prototypes with this wonderful machine. It's being perceived that this 3D printing is a transformative technology like the steam engine, the light bulb, nuclear energy, the microchip-to name a few.
This technology has the potential to power innovations to create new industries, and most importantly to cause disruption to the existing model of production of spare parts and associated industries. It's being argued that 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a revolutionary technology having the underlying potential to cause disruption to age-old approaches to designing and manufacturing with profound geopolitical, economic, social, demographic, environmental, and security implications. It's being perceived that this technology has the capability to cause disruption to the light engineering sector (LES) of developing countries, which is basically a lifeline of spare parts for supporting the industrial economy and transferring technical know-how.
In most of developing countries, LES plays a vital role in supporting the industrial economy. This sector also offers job opportunities to labour force having a technical and vocational background. For example, recent studies found that more than 50,000 micro and small enterprises in the LES of Bangladesh have created jobs for more than 700,000 workforce. One of the major outputs of this sector has been spare parts to support the operation and maintenance of production machinery of major economic sectors like textiles, manufacturing, and food production as well as processing. Moreover, the maintenance of automobiles largely depends on the local LES for supply of mechanical components. Despite the low quality, timely production of spare parts is the competitive advantage of the LES over original equipment manufacturers. In addition to on-demand production, LES sector also benefits from the low-cost supply of local labour.
But this competitive advantage of LES in supplying spare parts is likely to be taken over by 3D printing. 3D printing technology offers the prospect to support the on-demand production of spare parts with a high level of precision. On the other hand, due to the very low labour requirement and minimal material as well as energy wastages, 3D printing-based production of spare parts also offers the promise to be cost-competitive.
In order to be economically more attractive to conventional methods of spare parts production in developing countries, 3D printing appears to be still in a disadvantageous position. Despite the underlying potential, breakthrough technologies like 3D printing often take decades from initial invention to changing the way we do things. And over a long period, their potential impact can be nearly unimaginable early in the process. For example, although 3D printing needs to go a long way to show its full transformative power, General Electric has already started using it to mass-produce parts for jet engines.
As reported in the media, 'rather than 20 pieces welded together, the new tip was a single elegant piece that weighed 25 per cent less than its predecessor, and was five times more durable and 30 per cent more cost-efficient.' In addition to the fuel injecting nozzle, GE has succeeded in using additive manufacturing to make sensors, blades, heat exchangers, and other parts for jet engines. In the beginning, there is a need for high calibre engineers to build 3D printers and produce precise 3D designs of the parts, but once done, the printer starts adding layer after layer material without the need for human intervention.
Among the lead users of using 3D printing for producing spare parts, Maersk Link and Maersk Tankers are piloting a project to start 3D printing aboard ships and offshore facilities. The underlying objective is to reduce the number of spare parts to be able to produce them when needed.
Like GE or Maersk, the adoption of 3D printing is now being driven by the early adopters, having unique requirement which could not be served well by incumbent production and business models. History tells that the continued progression of 3D printing will lead to making it attractive to highly cost-conscious customers.
Not only aviation leader GE, but this beginning is also already being followed by the automotive, energy, healthcare, and other industries. An increasing number of industries are embracing 3D printing. Among other benefits, 3D printing also reduces the number of components. For example, engineers at GE used 3D printing to replace 855 parts with just a dozen.
Like many other technologies such as computer, wireless communication, and the internet, 3D printing has also been going through a long journey to grow as a strong substitute to existing means of production, distribution, and consumption of spare parts. The research and development work in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the proof of concepts of photopolymerisation, powder fusion, and sheet lamination, started the journey of modern 3D printing. The fusion of diverse technologies like computer-aided design, numerical control machine tools, laser beam melting process, stereolithography, laser sintering, internet, computer vision, 3D modelling, electron beam melting, and inkjet printing, among others have been consolidating the foundation of modern 3D printing technology. The emerging commercial prospects, curiosity, and intellectual challenge intensified R&D and also patent filling in the 1990s. The dawn of the 21st century started witnessing the commoditisation of the AM processes, primarily due to the expiration of key patents for a number of core AM processes. It's being reported that a major portion of potential customers in advanced countries are experimenting with 3D printing for replacement parts, especially when spare-part suppliers often struggle to meet their current demands.
The cost structure is an important issue to assess the implication of this technology on competitive advantage. Particularly in developing countries, the light engineering sector has been taking advantage of low-cost labour to maintain its competitive edge in producing spare parts for imported machinery.
The conventional process of spare parts production consisting of shape forming and matching is highly labour-intensive. As opposed to the rigorous engagement of labour in traditional spare parts production, in 3D printing, labour might include removing the finished product or refilling the raw material, among other things. A study conducted by the US National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST) finds that estimated labour cost varies from 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the total cost. Material and machine are major cost components. As developing countries are likely to go to import both the machine and powdered materials, LSE in developing countries will find them in a disadvantaged position.
The 3D printing for spare parts production is going to be a blessing as well as a curse for developing countries. Once the technology matures, 3D printing will offer the option of on-demand production of high precision parts as and when required. As a result, the downtime of production machinery will come down. Moreover, due to the supply of high precision spare spars, performance degradation of production machinery will slow down, and usable life will also expand. Furthermore, the need for storage of spare parts will even start diminishing. But on the other hand, labour-based jobs in producing spare parts will keep disappearing. In contrary to this, advanced countries will keep gaining innovation jobs for advancing 3D printing technologies, and also high precision manufacturing jobs for producing those printers. Due to the rapid growth of e-commerce, and the need for meticulous 3D design, and specialised printers, it might be cheaper to place orders online to the original equipment manufacturers and receive the exact replacement part the next day, as opposed to getting an imprecise one from local spare parts manufacturers.
M. Rokonuzzaman PhD is academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy. email@example.com
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