Realize the potential of 3D printing

My first visit to a 3D printing lab was in the fall of 2014. On a trip to Kentucky, I toured a University of Louisville lab where, among other things, a team was working with GE Aerospace to research the feasibility of 3D printed parts for jet engines.

Back then, 3D printing or additive manufacturing seemed like it was made for commercial aviation. GE Aerospace, Boeing and Airbus don’t make millions of engines or jets in a year; Boeing might just get 600 jets on the market, and in a great year, GE Aerospace could sell 3,000 jet engines. There are cases where the jet engine or aircraft manufacturer requires only a few instances of a particular part per jet or engine. Additionally, although they need to support their products for decades, the number of spare parts needed in any given year is relatively small and demand is unpredictable. Instead of storing a large inventory of spare parts that sit on the shelf due to minimum order quantities, 3D printing promised to produce only what was needed, when and maybe even where it was needed. That’s because designs can be digitized and delivered electronically to almost any 3D printer almost anywhere in the world.

Rightly or wrongly, additive manufacturing seemed deadlocked for several years: a promising technology, but still a niche application for spare parts or products with low volume or sporadic demand.

Fast forward to 2018, and things seemed to have changed a bit. Jabil and HP worked together to build a digital network to print production-quality parts — not just replacement parts — for HP’s 3D printing equipment. The technology was not yet able to keep up with injection molding in large quantities, but the gap was closing. HP argued that the economic break-even point – the point at which using 3D printing is just as economical as injection molding – is then up to 110,000 parts. In addition, injection molding was still the way to go.

Just three years later, I published an article by a professor at Duke and a director at Xerox who had developed a framework for determining which parts were suitable for 3D printing. 7 years after my visit to Louisville, the most common use case the authors identified was replacement parts.

That’s a long build to ask the question: So what’s going on now?

That was the subject of a conversation I had earlier this fall with Uwe Jurdeczka, Senior Expert for Additive Manufacturing at Alstom, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of everything from high-speed trains, subways, monorails and trams to turnkey systems, services and infrastructure, signaling and digital mobility. Like Boeing, Alstom builds big things in small numbers and then oversees them for decades. Therefore, the company has many critical spare parts and spare parts with low and unpredictable volume.

In 2017, Alstom started a 3-year research initiative, partially funded by the European Union, to learn more about additive manufacturing. In this case, the research focused specifically on the feasibility of 3D printing metal parts. “We had used additive manufacturing for some plastic parts on the train and for some safety-related protective parts,” Jurdeczka said. “We wanted to see if we could use additive manufacturing to produce metal parts that would be used on the train and not just as spare parts.”

Alstom believed it could progress to 2020 and turned to Replique to manufacture the parts. Co-founded by Max Siebert, a former BASF employee, Replique is part of Chemovator GmbH, BASF’s in-house venture builder. Replique “provides a secure digital platform that enables OEMs to provide their customers with parts on demand via a global and decentralized 3D printing network” from partners vetted by Replique.

According to Jurdeczka, the Alstom team experimented with different parts and two different technologies to compare factors such as the cost of producing the parts versus traditional manufacturing methods, the lead time to produce and receive the parts, the total cost of ownership, and the impact on the environment. Sustainability is an important part of Alstom’s message.

The project progressed slowly given the global nature of Alstom’s business and the importance of reliability and safety in the transport industry. Another complication of production is that similar train components may have different requirements for different regions. A part that works in South Africa may have slightly different specifications in Europe. However, by 2020 they had identified several parts as candidates for additive manufacturing. That’s why they turned to Replique to design and produce custom, industrial-grade, off-the-shelf parts to be used in original equipment.

The first part to be qualified and produced was a metal doorstop used in railway carriages. Replique helped Alstom select the material and printing technology, qualify and deliver the doorstop for mass production in just a month and a half. During this time, according to the Alstom team, the doorstop “went through the protocols of the initial sample inspection and assembly and received final approval for series production”.

A metal doorstop was the first item suitable for use on the trains.

An important part of this development process was the qualification of the parts due to the high safety standards required in the transportation industry. In this case, the parts had to meet certain fire and smoke protection regulations. “We have an ecosystem of 7 leading material manufacturers to help select the right materials and provide a network of more than 60 printing partners to produce polymer and metal parts,” said Max Siebert, CEO and co-founder of Replique.

Alstom parts went through a rigorous certification process to ensure they meet safety standards.

Ben Boese, 3D Printing Hub Manager, noted that the company “was able to produce the doorstop at zero cost compared to traditional methods.” He added that Alstom plans to explore producing new parts “or even making them lighter by using less filler”.

Jurdeczka said the parts are working well and the lead times for receiving parts are shorter. Because the specifications for a printed part are digital, they can be exported to manufacturing partners who are part of Replique’s global network, essentially creating a local supply wherever Alstom does business. “The traditional way to make these parts is to buy sheet metal, bend it, grind it, coat it, and then assemble it. Now we order it, we get a finished part and we can torque it to assemble,” said Jurdeczka. He noted that they may only need 30 pieces in one order. “With 3D printing, we don’t need safety stock,” he said. “We can order parts in the quantity we need.” In addition, the parts travel much shorter distances to be delivered – a positive impact on Alstom’s carbon footprint.

Siebert told me that in his experience, Alstom has made great strides in identifying the potential of 3D printing in its operations. “They realize they may not need mass-production technologies for everything,” he said. “They are realizing a fundamental promise of 3D printing, which is the ability to produce the right number of parts, from the material you want, anywhere in the world, and safely.”

About the author

Bob Trebilcock Bob Trebilcock, Editor-in-Chief, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain issues for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. Trebilcock is a graduate of Bowling Green State University and lives in Chicago. He can be reached at 603-852-8976.

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