In the past six months alone, my washing machine has broken down twice. It’s over ten years old, so the length of time finding and installing the parts meant several weeks of handing a laundry bag to my parents like I was an 18-year-old college student coming home for the weekend.
It reminded me of a presentation by industrial consultant Phil Reeves at CES in 2015: dismantling a Bosch washing machine to see which components could and could not be 3D printed. While the referenced technologies have evolved over the years, its message that economics doesn’t always equal AM continues to deliver a relevant dose of pragmatism whenever the topic of spare parts comes up.
“I think if we did this study now, we would find a lot more viable components that are either economically viable for 3D printing or more suitable materials,” Reeves explained on a recent call with TCT. “Personally, I always think the whole aftermarket debate comes down to material properties. Do we have a suitable additive material to replace the spare part? The right to repair is going to be really interesting in that , yes we have the right to repair but where is the liability if you choose repair Because unless the part was originally designed to be 3D printed it will always be some kind of band aid .
While recent conversations around supply chain have put AM and digital inventories in the spotlight, 3D printing spare parts is nothing new. In 2012, Swedish consumer electronics manufacturer Teenage Engineering made some of its components available through an online 3D printing provider. Shapes to combat the high shipping costs associated with spare parts for his OP-1 synthesizer.
“Companies like Teenage Engineering are highlighting one of the greatest benefits of 3D printing, allowing anyone to take control of creating aftermarket parts and tackling the persistent problem of products that may be impossible to fix,” Christopher Angi, sales manager at Shapeways told TCT. “On a larger scale, we see the possibility of 3D printing spare parts and eliminating huge amounts of warehouse space – as well as the long chain of communication it can take just to get a or a few parts – replaced by digital inventories. We work with companies across multiple verticals that are already doing this or considering the transition. We are also seeing a trend of companies wanting to focus on refining their own specialties while outsourcing 3D printing services for functional parts related to maintenance, repair and operations (MRO).
Where volumes are correct or redesign beneficial, the case for additive manufacturing may be justified, but for many parts traditional manufacturing methods are still the way to go. Reeves recalls a visit to the warehouse of one of Europe’s largest suppliers of spare parts for household appliances nearly a decade ago. An analysis of the millions of SKUs available was conducted, but Reeves concluded that “you could literally count on one hand which ones were viable 3D prints”.
“Some of them were viable for printing, but the vast majority of parts that fail aren’t the main mechanical parts,” Reeves continued, noting cast metal parts such as metal griddle burners. that could otherwise prove costly to reproduce with traditional tools. “The vast majority of white goods parts that fail are electrical part systems, interlock switches because they wear out, motors, bearings, these are all things that are actually not particularly printable. “
For parts where 3D printing makes sense, the 3D printer manufacturer and service provider Ricoh 3D deploys AM for spare parts both internally and for customers. The company has adopted a “one-off-the-shelf” model for its own spare parts, with engineers at the Ricoh UK Products Limited site replacing critical factory jigs and automation tools with AM alternatives. In one customer example, home appliance consortium Groupe SEB worked with Ricoh 3D to redesign an outdated drip catcher for an espresso machine. The company already offers 3D printed replacement parts for several products under a 10-year repair program warranty, and was able to successfully complete 1,000 coffee cycles with this SLS replacement part.
Mark Dickin, Director of Additive Manufacturing and Molding Engineering at Ricoh 3D, told TCT: “The project demonstrates how 3D printing can quickly produce small, complex products; whether in the repair of finished consumer products or production line equipment. When volumes are relatively low or parts are no longer produced, 3D printing is often the only cost-effective solution.
While Dickin thinks AM can play a huge role in application stories like this, he warns that challenges remain in disrupting established aftermarket models.
“‘Right to repair’ legislation is likely to cause logistical headaches for manufacturers around the world who have to stock hundreds of thousands of spare parts,” Dickin said. ” trend of the last 60 years by creating goods that last longer – saving money for the consumer and the environment.
“Some parts will be needed frequently and it makes sense for manufacturers to keep them in physical form, but 3D printing means less-requested parts can be kept digitally as CAD data. With only one data file needed, why stop at a 10-year warranty?
Paul Ruscoe, new director of business development at LCD 3D printer developer Photocentricwhich has worked with a number of manufacturers in consumer electronics and durable goods to produce replacement parts, agrees.
“The legislation is likely to cause significant logistical problems for manufacturers who have to stock thousands of spare parts,” Ruscoe told TCT. “The flexibility of AM provides a solution to this problem. It is likely that often needed parts will be kept in stock, but 3D printing means less frequently needed parts can be kept digitally, with small runs printed on demand.
With right to repair legislation now obliging manufacturers across Europe to supply spare parts for certain appliances and electrical appliances over 10 years, Ruscoe says this creates a challenge for manufacturers who will be required to stockpile spare parts. parts they may not need, and the company is actively inviting consumer goods manufacturers to collaborate and digitize their spare parts lists.
“3D printing can easily solve this problem by being able to print quantities on demand,” Ruscoe said. “This gives manufacturers the opportunity to support the Right to Repair initiative while saving on inventory and warehousing costs, and at the same time minimizing the risk of producing parts that are not needed.”
In some cases, consumers take the repairs into their own hands. Repair Cafe has created a network of 2,200 free spaces where visitors can return their broken items and learn how to repair them for free. The initiative was launched in 2009 by environmentalist Martine Postma in Amsterdam. Today, with sites all over the world equipped with all the tools and materials needed to repair items ranging from electrical appliances to toys, could 3D printing have a place?
“The Repair Café community around the world is excited about 3D printing and sees its potential,” Postma told TCT. “We see Repair Cafés experimenting with 3D printing, but not on a large scale. Designing spare parts is still quite difficult. If it got easier, more Repair Cafés would feel more confident about 3D printing and then it could be a real revolution for the repair movement.
While Postma notes the rise in the number of students learning 3D design and manufacturing skills in schools, which the founder says is “very much needed in a repair company,” there are other challenges ahead. .
“It could be a revolution,” Postma added. “When you can print a spare part yourself quite easily, you are no longer dependent on the manufacturer to supply you with the items you need to perform a repair. Then you would really be able to afford repairs. Of course, you always need repair information, which the manufacturer is not willing to provide. But being able to create spare parts on your own would be a huge step that would stimulate self-repair. It would also be better for the environment if spare parts could be produced locally instead of having to come from the other side of the world.
In the UK, Manchester Metropolitan University PrintCity is part of a 7.84 million euro Interreg North West Europe project called ShaRepairwhich aims to reduce WEEE (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment) from consumer products through citizen repair initiatives using digital tools like 3D printing.
“There are thousands of citizens with varying degrees of repair expertise, but they are diffuse and some don’t have access to the parts they need,” commented Gary Buller, Technical Manager at PrintCity. “ShaRepair’s digital tools will hopefully bring these citizens together, bridging the gap between intention and behavior. 3D printing is one of the tools to fill these gaps, allowing citizens to better manage their parts inventory, bringing agility to the spare parts supply chain and also optimizing the repair process.
Working with partners across Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, Ireland and Denmark, ShaRepair provides online tools, a digital library of printable parts, professional repair service information and free product repair workshops throughout the year. PrintCity has even repaired its own 3D printers using recycled filament made from coffee cups.
Rhiannon Hunt, Circular Economy Project Manager at MMU, added: “These are not necessarily things you think of by heart. We had a radio case that was cracked, so they printed a new case, vacuum attachments and buttons, all sorts of stuff. I think that’s one of the main advantages of the additive, it’s so flexible that you can easily tackle many different types of products.
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