Three-dimensional (3-D) printing — or more correctly, Additive Manufacturing (AM) — has the potential to change everything with respect to spare parts inventory. As the technology develops, people will be able to manufacture parts at almost any location, at any time they choose.

The constraints of needing a complex factory dedicated to making specific spare parts may just disappear. It may even be that some parts are manufactured in house, under license from the OEM. 

With print on demand, OEMs will need to hold less inventory, which will bring down their costs.  They may also choose to shorten the supply chain by placing appropriate AM equipment in each major market, rather than have a central factory somewhere.

They may no longer be required to have regional warehousing. A company in, say, California that purchases parts from a European supplier may find the supply lead time is cut from months to days because the supplier locates an AM machine in the United States rather than supplying from a plant or warehouse in Europe.

These types of changes have the potential to revolutionize spare parts management.


It all depends on capacity

Despite all the promise of AM, the issue of capacity still needs to be managed.

The promise of print on demand instant availability relies on the provision of sufficient production capacity. An AM factory or machine is just like any other factory or machine; investors will want to maximize utilization.

This means loading up to full capacity, which means there may be backlogs. In some circumstances, a print-on-demand strategy could still take longer to supply than a supply-from-warehouse strategy. Expectations will need to be managed.


The AM sweet spot

What is the AM sweet spot?

Imagine an organization that has facilities in different regions or countries that each has a low level of local use of a specific part. At an aggregate level, they may purchase lots of this item, but each site only uses a few. This represents both a procurement and logistics challenge. 

With AM, this company could order from a supplier that has the part made in or near each user location. Allowing for sufficient capacity, this could slash lead times, reduce inventory levels and simplify supply chain management.

Now imagine a company that has aging equipment. For them, the dreaded “last buy,” which is the purchase of a parcel of parts that are soon to be commercially obsolete, may become a thing of the past. With AM, there may be no such thing as commercially obsolete because it may be possible for parts to be economically produced at any time.

These two very common situations may just be the AM sweet spot.

processing equipment

The AM revolution is now

AM is not the future; AM is happening right now.

Here are some items that have recently been reported as being created today using AM. BAE Systems is using AM to make components for four squadrons of Tornado fighter jets for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. Similarly, GE Aviation is using AM for parts for its LEAP jet engine. Automotive companies are starting to use AM. Manufacturers of large home appliances use AM.

While currently the range of parts that can be made may be limited, as the technology evolves AM has the potential to revolutionize spare parts management. NP