Creating a replacement part with a 3D printer may seem like the best solution, but basic due-diligence may reveal a better approach.
By Jane Alexander, Managing Editor
So your maintenance department finally has its own 3D printer. Congratulations. Now what? Former manufacturing executive Andy Urda calls this technology the future of maintenance. That may be so, but only if it is used appropriately and correctly. 3D printing is not a one-size-fits-all type of solution. Urda suggests that you answer the following questions before attempting to print a repair part. Otherwise, you could be wasting time, energy, and resources.
Can you buy the replacement part at a reasonable price and obtain it in a reasonable time?
If the answer is yes, 3D printing is not your best option. If the answer is no, anwswer the next two questions.
What material, tolerances, and finish are needed for the part to function properly?
The availability and types of 3D printing materials are expanding, opening up new applications daily. As materials technology advances, tolerances and finishes are also improving. There are also several options for processing the finished part to achieve desired tolerances or finishes.
If you don’t know the original part’s material, tolerance, and finish requirements, you’ll have to figure them out, which may require expending more time than your operations can afford. Urda explains that, while experimentation is great for labs and universities, it may not be the best approach for maintenance departments where the goal is to fix things right the first time, every time—and, usually, quickly.
Will you have any legal issues if you re-create the part? Simply put, will you be violating patents or purchase agreements?
Upon validating that you can legally print the part, have the correct material, and meet the tolerance requirements (whether directly off the printer or through post-processing), proceed to the next question.
If the part is metal, would machining it—on-site or at an off-site shop—be faster and cheaper than attempting to print it?
3D printing is new, exciting, and presents a sense osf immediacy. But, for metal parts, don’t be surprised if the old-fashioned way isn’t the best/most economical way to make a quality part that meets specifications.
Is the part design available in a common CAD format?
Once you have answered the previous questions and chosen to go forward, keep in mind that your part design must be available in a common CAD format. If it’s not, it must be 3D scanned to capture its physical attributes. This process can be accomplished whether the complete part is available (intact) or can be pieced together with multiple scans. Mastering this technique, however, may call for significant time and skills. If not enough of a part is available for scanning, your only choice is to re-engineer it—which could take even more time.
As soon as you have the CAD file, though, you can download it to your printer and print. After the part is printed it may require additional refinements, such as post-machining, to achieve the necessary tolerance/finish. MT
Andy Urda notes that only time will tell if bins of parts in maintenance departments will someday be replaced by 3D printers and vats of materials to print. He recommends these links for further reading on 3D printing:
Andrew Urda has spent more than 25 years in industry, including managing divisions of global companies and turning under-performing teams into overachievers. For more information, email email@example.com.