The digital spare parts project

Risk Consulting magazine has interviewed senior scientist Sini Metsä-Kortelainen from VTT on the results of the digital spare parts project.

Sini Metsä-Kortelainen was part of the Digital Spare Parts project conducted by Aalto University and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd in conjunction with some industrial companies.

Targets and methods

Could you tell us about the project's targets and methods?

The main goals of the project were to create a business concept for digital spare parts and to lay the foundations for a functional ecosystem, analyse the current and future performance and competitiveness of spare parts manufactured using a 3D printing process, increase the efficiency and speed of spare parts production and distribution with the new operating model, and create a roadmap for digital spare parts.

During the project we collected information on the current situation of the companies and their future prospects by organising one-on-one and group interviews, workshops, seminars, visits, international research scientist exchanges and surveys. In addition, many demonstration parts, which were original parts of companies participating in the project, were manufactured and analysed.

The essential developments in technology

What are the essential developments in 3D printing technology that enable its increased use in industrial spare part production?

At the moment, there are certain issues that must be developed before a wider implementation of 3D printing in the manufacturing of spare parts can start.

Technologically and economically-feasible 3D printable spare parts should be identified from spare parts libraries in a systematic way, and methods should be developed for automation of both orderdelivery processes and the different phases of the manufacturing chain related to 3D printing.

The stages of development necessary for and directly linked to 3D printing technologies mainly relate to materials and the quality of the parts. It should be noted that 3D printing differs from traditional manufacturing methods and, for example, produces a unique microstructure and surface finish. Material selection for 3D printing is quite limited when compared to the materials available for traditional processes. Thus, the digitalisation of spare parts and their further manufacture utilising 3D printing may lead to the use of substitute materials.

It is essential to gather more information on 3D printing materials, the effects of different post-treatments and compare the properties with traditional materials. In addition, quality-assurance methods, general rules for IPR protection, and methods for safe data storage and transportation must be developed.

The main benefits

What are the main benefits of 3D printing applied to industrial spare parts production?

The main benefits are making spare parts service businesses more efficient and achieving significant cost savings: availability of spare parts is improved, customisation of parts is enabled, delivery times will become shorter and the manufacturing of individual parts or small batches will become cost effective.

In addition to manufacturing and warehousing or transportation costs, it is also important to be aware of the costs of downtime that can become so significant that the price of the spare part itself becomes insignificant. 3D printing enables new spare part concepts like smart spare parts: different kinds of small objects can be embedded into parts during the manufacturing phase. Smart spare parts are suitable for condition-based monitoring, tracing and part identification.

Risk identification and assessment

Did you identify or assess risks that stemmed from 3D printing methods in spare parts production?

In the project we did not focus on the risks but some risks were certainly brought up, especially in the company interviews and workshops. These risks were related to materials and quality, IPR, ownership of 3D models, data storage and transportation, lacking standards and certificates, different 3D printing processes and information flow between the different parties.

Do you consider that the risk management framework of this production method requires reassessment for industrial production equipment and machinery?

What kind of changes are needed?

3D printing should be seen as a new supplementary manufacturing method alongside many conventional manufacturing methods. The materials and the processes related to 3D printing have not been extensively standardised but, in the future, the situation will be different, particularly in industrial 3D printing. The rules regarding digital data ownership and use must be formulated and included in the contracts between the OEM company and the 3D printing service provider, for example.

How widely used is 3D printing in production industries? Is the potential understood and are the industries already accustomed to using 3D?

3D printing technologies have attracted the interest of the manufacturing industry and the general public more than ever before. Many companies are currently evaluating the feasibility of adopting 3D printing technologies into their business, whereas some companies did this decades ago. The sale of 3D printed products and services has grown year on year and was close to USD 6.1 billion in 2016.

It is expected that growth will accelerate and the size of the industry will be USD 26.2 billion by 2022 according to Wohlers report 2017. Currently, 5% of company spare parts are suitable for conversion into digital spare parts and it is expected that the proportion of digital spare parts will increase to 10% in 2028.

Read also 3D printed spare parts - a potential risk?

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Matti Sjögren

Nordic Liability Risk Management Specialist, If