3D printing has emerged as a technology with a lot of potential and it continues to develop at a rapid pace. But could 3D printers one day find themselves on the road with field service engineers? And what do pizzas have to do with any of this?
On that note, let’s start with the pizzas. Earlier this year it was announced that an engineer had developed a 3D printer that could manufacture pizza, on the back of receiving a $125,000 grant from NASA to explore the possibilities of 3D printing food for astronauts. No joke, here it is in action:
Since then, the prospect of printing entire meals has emerged with the 3D printer (currently under development). Granted, this particular example may not have any implications for the field service industry (except, perhaps, for field workers who want to be able to print their lunch each day). But it goes to demonstrate how the realm of 3D printing is constantly expanding, and this brings closer the possibility of using the technology in field service.
On top of this, a recent survey of over 100 industrial manufacturers by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that two-thirds of them are now using 3D printing in some way. The majority are still just experimenting with it or using it for prototyping but it goes to show that 3D printing is more than just a nice idea – it is something that is being adopted by many companies.
3D printing and field service
In relation to field service specifically, you can imagine that ultimately 3D printers would be useful for mobile workers to have in their vans, enabling them to print parts on the go. The obvious upshot of this would be improved first-time fix rates as missing parts would be a thing of the past.
In the near future, though, perhaps a more realistic prospect is for organisations to get a 3D printer that is kept at a central office. Field workers could then request parts to be manufactured and pick them up.
You can also envisage organisations dealing with highly customised or complicated equipment making use of 3D printing, especially where parts are hard to get hold of or expensive to manufacture in the traditional way. Indeed, a number of companies are already taking advantage of it in this way, including General Electric.
Despite its potential, 3D printing is not yet a realistic prospect for most organisations. The two main reasons for this are cost and capability.
On cost, it is still more economical for many products to be manufactured on an industrial scale than it is with 3D printing. The exception is with items that cannot be manufactured in bulk or for items with a limited production run. Whether or not this will change as the cost of 3D printing comes down remains to be seen. It’s also interesting to see that General Electric say their aviation arm (GE Aviation) will manufacture 100,000 parts using 3D printing by 2020, by no means a small number.
Capability can also be a limitation, as you need to have a 3D model of the object you wish to manufacture designed on a computer first. This isn’t something anyone can do, but is a surmountable issue in the majority of cases; quite simply, the more complicated the model, the more skilled the person modelling it needs to be.
So will 3D printers become commonplace?
As with most of the technologies discussed in our Future of Field Service stream, it remains to be seen. It’s hard to see 3D printers superseding traditional manufacturing across the board, but their potential is exciting. It’s certainly possible to see how they could benefit field service organisations that need complex or custom parts that are expensive to manufacture via traditional methods.
As for every field worker getting a printer in their van? I think it’s safe to rule out that possibility in the near future. But the price of 3D printers will continue to fall over the next few years so it may reach a point when this is a viable prospect. Who knows, maybe they’ll become as commonplace as smartphones and tablets in the field?