Imagine that you had invented a thingamajig that was widely recognized to be of high quality and very useful. Soon, everyone was buying one and your hard-earned investment was paying off. The, suddenly or slowly, purchases started to drop and the money was only come in dribs and drabs. You’d reached the dreaded saturation point at which everyone who needed your fantastic thingamajig already had one and, since you had created something with such high quality, the only people who ever purchased another were those who had lost it somehow. At this point you have to invent something else that everybody is going to need if you want to continue to make money.
If, however, your invented doohickey had in it a joint that weakened and broke after 200 uses or if the outer covering of it could be redesigned to make the old one look so unfashionable as to be embarrassing, why you’d be back in business. The idea of planning for future failure, or engineering need for continuing purchases into a design, is termed planned obsolescence and was popularized as a concept in the 1950s by Brooks Steven.
The ability to 3D print spare parts in a moment’s notice is exactly why NASA is experimenting with zero-gravity 3D printing, but this application can also be a huge advantage down here on earth. German national railway company Deutsche Bahn has also recognized the advantages of low storage costs and custom-fitting production, and is hoping to apply that to their own rail network in the near future. To realize this, they have just set up a collaboration of companies, startups and research institutes called Mobility goes Additive, which will explore possibilities and promote end-product 3D printing.
The existence of Mobility goes Additive has recently been confirmed by Deutsche Bahn’s innovation manager Stefanie Bricwede, who talked about their plans and ambitions during the 3D Druck für Automotive conference in Ettlingen, Germany. As she explained at the event, they decided to set up a separate cluster of partners to increase the focus on ground-based mobility. 3D printing innovations, she says, are currently mostly being driven by the aviation industry and therefore dictated by an obsession with weight. But companies like Deutsche Bahn focus on completely different advantages, and therefore require a different approach.
Machine spare part obsolescence is a major headache for manufacturers. The stockout costs or consequences of non-available spare parts are invariably higher with longer periods of downtime. As time equals money, in the majority of manufacturing operations maintenance staff take their own approaches to stock management. One such way is the squirrel approach where obsolete parts are gathered for insurance purposes. Some manufacturers look to rationalize their spare part stock profile and often target high-value slow-moving parts, which are usually also the obsolete parts.
Unfortunately the rapid developments in industrial automation have accelerated the obsolescence process, leading many companies to be caught short. But with the recent burst of 3D printers becoming more accessible to the masses, we have been asking ourselves if the dawn of the 3D printer will eventually make obsolescence obsolete. The advancement in 3D printing could well change the process in which spare parts are managed – if the International Space Station can use a 3D printer to print spare parts, why can’t any other manufacturer in the future?