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Additive manufacturing—the answer to obsolescence?

Additive manufacturing (AM) is a technology to produce components through 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 create the desired shape, adding material instead of removing it like in traditional subtractive manufacturing.  Using this method, there is the potential to 3D-print any part, in any shape, using a wide range of materials, from innovative metals alloys, to plastics, concrete, and now even diamond.

Material engineers are currently exploring the potential of AM to manage some aspects of obsolescence, and to establish whether it is possible to simply 3D-print parts that are no longer available. For example, several national authorities, including the US and the Swiss Governments, have already established research programmes that explore the applications of this innovative production technique to tackle obsolescence in the military field.

Although many predict that AM could potentially solve the problem of sourcing obsolete replacement parts, there are still serious technical and bureaucratical questions that this technology cannot answer.

Firstly, newly fabricated parts can be hard to implement in highly regulated sectors, such as defence or the pharmaceutical industry, where sorting out regulations can take years. For example, it is unclear to which regulations these components should comply to make sure that they are safe to use in these fields. Another potential problem is that, at the moment, there are no laws in place to determine the intellectual property rights of additively manufactured components.

From a strictly technical point of view, the main shortcoming of AM is that while this technology could help manage obsolescence for mechanical components, it is not clear if it would help with other types of obsolescence, for example for electronics. As such, solutions that only tackle one aspect of obsolescence can only partially help. Electronic components, mechanical components, materials, software, skills, can all be subject to obsolescence.

March 11, 2020

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