3D printing is key to improving spare parts supply chains, when combining human and data-driven skills


3D printing, could be the key to reducing inventory, and for making supply chains for spare parts more responsive, according to new research from Durham University Business School.

The study, conducted by Dr Atanu Chaudhuri alongside colleagues at Aalborg University in Denmark, investigates how the technology can be used to assist in the production of spare parts for manufacturers across multiple sectors, and the positive impact the technology could have on industry.

Predicting the need for, and supplying, spare parts can be challenging for manufacturers, Dr Chaudhuri says, as customers rarely want the same types and levels of items year on year – or even month on month. To combat this uncertainty and to avoid being caught short, many companies adopt highly unsustainable and expensive contingency plans.

Dr Chaudhuri says: “To ensure they can provide a good service and avoid lengthy periods of “downtime” for customers, companies tend to keep high numbers of spare parts in different locations around the world in order to meet service level requirements. But this is costly and unsustainable.

“3D printing is promising as a technology for spare parts production as it can handle the challenges of high variability, long lead times, low demand, and high stock-out costs associated with traditional manufacturing of spare parts.”

Dr Chaudhuri ‘s research reveals that 3D printing holds the potential to reduce customer wait times for replacement parts, shorten the supply chain – which is better for both swift service and for reducing a company’s carbon footprint, – and can even help companies to keep costs low whilst maintaining a high standard of quality.

But switching from traditional methods of manufacturing to 3D printing is not as straightforward as it sounds. Dr Chaudhuri notes there are a number of significant challenges which have, in previous attempts, made it near impossible to implement the technology effectively.  This includes limitations on the availability of appropriate materials , the overwhelming range of different parts needing to be designed for 3D re-production, possible quality risks, and legal consequences if manufacturers violate intellectual property rights by recreating parts designed by someone else.

However, Dr Chaudhuri’s study suggests an approach which will enable manufacturers to more easily adopt 3D printing technologies for their spare parts production.

By applying a design thinking approach, the research sets out a process for manufacturers to identify the most suitable spare parts, which would be suitable for the 3D printing process, from a wider portfolio of spare parts.

The study provides further support for manufacturers by developing a set of generic guidelines for manufacturers to adopt in order to identify suitable spare parts for 3D printing in the future. Steps include companies holding workshops that involve the maintenance and service technicians in order to help identify the potential for 3D printing in current and future products, and identifying which spare parts create problems for maintenance and service due to lack of availability, complexity or have issues with durability.

Dr Chaudhuri says: “Deploying technology can only solve half of the problem. To enable 3D printing to be of real benefit to the manufacturing sector it is important for companies to combine both ‘data-driven’ and ‘expert driven’ approaches to select the most suitable parts. Whilst algorithms can identify commonly needed parts as candidates for the 3D printing process, it is our human experts who can judge feasibility and possibility of using such parts.”

The study’s findings are already having an impact with manufacturers with different organisations, who have invited Dr Chaudhuri to share his findings and assist them in adopting his recommendations into their own practices.

Additionally, the methodology of his study has been further updated for application in the context of a unique technology called Free-Form Injection Moulding, which is used to produce customised moulds using 3D printing. This technology, Dr Chaudhuri says, will enable the companies using it to produce customised parts in limited quantities, supporting the development of prototypes, as well as producing spare parts for customisable products. This research was conducted in close collaboration with Addifab – the pioneering company behind the development of Free-Form Injection Moulding technology.

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