When I was a child, I was fascinated by the TV series Star Trek and the idea of “beaming.” The Enterprise crew was able to transport anything through space over long distances in literally no time.
What has “beaming” got to do with Digital Transformation? “Well,” you could say, “this is a little bit far-fetched, isn’t it?” So let’s get a little deeper into today’s supply chain, for instance, of a valve manufacturer. Valves include cases that are either welded or casted. Since casting has become very expensive in Germany, most companies now contract foundries in India or China. You cannot order single pieces, like 5 of case A, 3 Case B, and 2 case C. Multiply the numbers by 10 or even 50, and you come to a minimum that is getting close to economical.
If you have a huge variety of products (different diameters, different kinds of alloys etc.), you end up with considerable stock. Of course, on hand stock is expensive. If your valued customer decides to order devices when you don’t have the casted materials readily available, you end up with extremely long delivery times. Twelve weeks is the minimum you can expect if you ship the cases by sea. Air freight is an expensive alternative: cast iron parts are heavy!
To make matters worse, what if you have a subsidiary abroad, e.g. in the US, and they assemble the products. You need to ship the parts from your headquarters (in Germany) to the US, which again costs time, plus you need to anticipate which devices the US market will demand. We are not getting into customs issues in this article. It would be interesting to understand the financial effects here, though.
Back to Starship Enterprise and Beaming
Imagine that you can beam the parts to your subsidiary abroad! No long delivery times from India or China, no cavity problems in the castings…you just snap your fingers and the device is there. 3D-printing (AM, Additive Manufacturing) is a little bit like that. You imagine the part at the headquarters (this is called the design process), transfer the data to your subsidiary via internet, and it appears in front of their eyes in the 3D-printer. Wouldn’t that be a major improvement? No shortcomings on stock or excess stock, no long delivery times. The parts would be right there when needed!
We had a discussion with a couple of managers during a recent lunch break. I made a point by stating that shipping businesses will place 3D printers on their container vessels because they don’t want to have expensive layovers in the shipyard for repair. One of the managers immediately replied, “No, that’s not possible. I have been working in that industry. The parts are too big, they cannot be 3D printed.” “Wow,” I thought, “I hope our competitors think the same!”
Have you heard familiar things? Most likely, you have because this thinking is quite common.
As I wrote earlier, I love Napoleon’s quote’ “Imagination rules the world.” This disruption is asking for much more imagination than we seem to allow ourselves.
It is true that, today, big motor parts of container vessels cannot be 3D printed on board. Most likely, not even our valve casings. But what about tomorrow? I am personally convinced that 3D printing has just begun its way through the production industry. The Airbus 350 XWB contains more than 1,000 3D printed parts already! Many engine-parts of the European Ariane 6 rocket engine are 3D printed.
Today, the limitation of 3D printed metal parts are less than 50x50x50 cm (20”x20”x20”). There are only a few exceptions. But honestly, how long do you think it is going to stay like this?
By the way, the shipping industry is already anticipating a massive change within their industry.
“Fully 41% of air cargo and 37% of ocean
container shipments are threatened by 3D printing.”
Prepare for the Change
The first question is: will 3D printing be able to benefit your business? Maybe not today, but soon. In order to leverage this technology in a couple years, we need to gain additional experience. Every new technology that we adapt requires a “learning-curve.” This is why I suggest looking at the technology now rather than postponing it.
I do not suggest investing in a metal 3D printer worth 1.5 Million dollars without a clear-cut goal. However, we need to look into 3D printing.
3D printed extra lightweight gear. Autodesk exhibit. Photo: A. Buschek
A good starting point is rapid prototyping. Get an inexpensive 3D printer that allows you to print plastic models of your new and existing devices. At the same time, your engineers will learn some basics of 3D modeling and printing, and understand the different design approaches. It may turn out that we can switch from solid walls to an inner mesh, or a honeycomb structure, to save weight and material while maintaining the same stability (see above picture of the gear). It is also said that 3D printing requires fewer parts because of its ability to print highly complex parts. How does that apply to your products?
The above picture shows a part that is used to support a suspended roof. On the left-hand side, you find the conventionally-designed part, which is actually made of multiple parts. On the right-hand side, you see a 3-D printed part that was designed by a computer. Autodesk calls that “Generative Design.” The Autodesk team gave the computer only the basic measurements and the force that the part has to withstand. The computer did the entire design based on these data.
Watch Autodesk’s video on Generative Design
3D Printing will heavily disrupt many businesses…most likely yours as well. It requires new design approaches, financial considerations, and entire supply chain modifications. Actually, the entire process will change. Shipping costs will go down, delivery time will decrease, and flexibility and agility of the business will increase. We need to consider this technology and prepare ourselves for the time when industrial 3D printers will become more affordable.
Today, there are roughly ten big players in industrial 3D printing on the market. My prediction is that the prices will halve within three years. At the same time, the size of the products that can be 3D printed will quadruple. Printing time will decrease as well (today this is a considerable limitation). I also predict that the number of manufacturers of 3D printers will double in this time period. It’s true, AM won’t help you today. But it will disrupt your business in the future. Not in one year not in two. If I’d say in five years, it might be already too late.
If we want to stay competitive, we better act now and prepare ourselves!
The purpose of this blog is to start a discussion. Whether you agree or disagree, please leave your comments below. I hope to hear from you!