Is additive manufacturing the answer to obsolescence?
Recent developments in additive manufacturing (AM) have led many to believe that it will soon be possible to 3D-print any component, in any shape and material, solving the dilemma of sourcing and buying obsolete components. But is it really that easy? We explain why AM cannot substitute a good obsolescence management plan.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is a production process to create components using a variety of 3D-printing techniques. The component material is initially in the form of powder, which is melted with a laser layer-upon-layer to obtain the desired shape, adding material instead of removing it like in traditional subtractive manufacturing.
The range of materials that can be used is almost endless – from innovative plastics and metal alloys, to concrete, wax, resins and even human tissue. One of the newest advances in this sector is the possibility, recently explored by Sandvik Coromant, to print with diamond powder, shaping the hardest material on Earth into any desired geometry.
AM has a number of advantages compared to subtractive manufacturing. For example, it is possible to print intricate and hollow shapes with no scrap, since only the necessary amount of material is added to the process. This has made it a popular technique in fields that require the production of highly specialist components in a small production run, such as aerospace or the biomedical sector, and has led to consistent investments in exploring how AM could help manage the obsolescence of manufacturing components.
The problem with obsolescence
Our society is characterised by rapid technological developments in the use of big data, automation and computing. These technologies have had a positive impact on manufacturing, allowing plant managers to maximise productivity, reduce waste, and create a safer working environment for their employees.
On the other hand, technological components, both hardware and software, tend to have a shorter lifespan. As newer versions of the same components are marketed, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) might stop producing the version purchased by the manufacturer, making it obsolete.
When obsolete components break, it can be hard to find like-for-like replacements. Managing obsolescence is therefore critical, since the breakage or malfunction of obsolete components exposes the business to costly downtime or even to the possibility of having to upgrade an entire system.
AM – a viable alternative?
Material engineers are currently researching the potential of AM to manage some aspects of obsolescence. The core idea is that if a component is no longer available from the OEM, it could be simply 3D-printed.
Stakeholders who operate in highly regulated sectors, where upgrading to newer components means realms of paperwork and red tape, have been especially keen to explore this possibility. For example, several national authorities, including the US and the Swiss Governments, have already established research programmes to investigate the potential of AM to tackle obsolescence in the military field.
Though the results are promising, there are still serious technical and bureaucratical questions that must be answered before AM can be used on a large scale to manage the obsolescence of manufacturing components.
One of these questions is regulatory compliance. From a legal point of view, it is unclear which conditions 3D-printed components should satisfy to make sure that they are safe to use in a particular application. This is especially true for highly regulated fields such as nuclear, pharmaceutical, or food and beverage, where the type of components used and the frequency of their replacement is dictated by the law.
From a strictly technical perspective, the main shortcoming of AM is that while it could help manage the obsolescence of mechanical components, it is unclear if it would help with other types of obsolescence, for example for electronics. Mechanical components, electronics, cables, software, skills, can all be subject to obsolescence, and solutions that only tackle one aspect of it can only partially help.
For these reasons, AM cannot substitute a proactive obsolescence management plan, which at the moment represents the best way to minimise the negative repercussions of obsolescence.
A holistic approach
Obsolescence is the natural consequence of technological progress and of the marketing of increasingly efficient solutions. As a consequence, it can’t be avoided entirely. However, its impact on a business can be drastically reduced.
There are two main approaches to obsolescence management: reactive and proactive. The reactive approach consists in taking measures to substitute or repair parts once a breakdown happens, while the proactive approach is based on constant monitoring and planning to prevent breakdowns from occurring in the first place.
A proactive approach is of course preferable since it allows manufacturers to plan in advance, sourcing spare parts where it is most convenient, stocking them if necessary, and avoiding or minimising downtime due to unexpected breakage.
To implement this approach, manufacturers must be familiar with the expected life cycle of their equipment and stay up to date on which components will go out of production in the near future. In small and medium plants, having a spreadsheet of equipment’s life cycles and keeping it updated might suffice; in larger plants, managing obsolescence can become a full-time job.
To help with that, hiring an obsolescence manager can be a good solution. These professionals can help track the life phases of manufacturing components, monitor the condition of machinery and tools, gather data from sensors for predictive maintenance, and plan necessary repairs before breakage even happens.