The soda machine in my old office was beautiful. I was working for a bank in the UK, and the little snack room next to my desk had one of these robotic machines, with the arm that whirred over and grabbed your drink, depositing it ever so softly in the dispenser. Once it broke and – this is not a joke – we had to wait two weeks for a part to be shipped from Sweden.
Any field service company that services physical products – we’re talking plumbers, HVAC techs, general maintenance businesses, etc. – is going to run into an inventory issue at some point. The growing 3D printing trend offers the promise of a perfect inventory system. Of never missing the one part you need. Of never carrying too much inventory.
But the heady early days of 3D printing seem to already be behind us. Now, printer manufactures are working to cut down printing times and costs, to make these tech toys into something more manageable and practical. Mirroring the tipping point in the internet of things, the future of 3D printing now teeters on the edge.
The details matter in 3D printing
There are a number of different ways to print objects, but all of them rely on the very precise placement of very small bits of matter. By repeating the process over and over again, a 3D printer can deposit thin layers of resin or fuse powdered material into a single piece.
But printers don’t love the outside world. In the same way that your home printer isn’t going to produce photo-resolution images when it’s on a waterbed – do we still do waterbeds? – a 3D printer on an unstable surface isn’t going to give you a workable result.
We’re talking about precision that requires accuracy within fractions of a millimeter. Because of this, most 3D printing happens in a very controlled environment.
3D printing trends in industry
With the current state of 3D printing, field service businesses have some choices to make. In our ideal world, you’re riding around with a printer in the back of the van, firing out bolts, vents, and washers as needed. Right now, that’s not an option.
Instead, you can either host a printer at a central – which basically means flat and clean – location or you can send specs out for production remotely. Companies that want to quickly prototype smaller parts or have access to immediate access to pieces usually host their own. While companies that need more intensive, larger pieces printed will often send specs to be printed remotely.
Industry is still largely focused on using 3D printers to prototype and develop new products. According to a survey from Gartner, well over half of all companies using 3D printing are using it for new products. Supply chain innovation and efficiency increases account for just 16% of applications.
That means we’re not focusing on making the system work faster, we’re focused on getting new pieces into the system.
Longer print times and finicky conditions are likely to be the underlying issues that support the division. 3D printers are still complex machines with very little tolerance for typical jobsite conditions. They like being on flat surfaces, they don’t like vibrations, and dust can wreak havoc on them. On top of that, you can easily wait over ten minutes for even the simplest parts. Quick if you’d have to go to the store. Less quick if you normal have a bag with 500 of the part in the back of the van.
Balancing 3D printing costs, value
Deloitte estimates that “[for] the foreseeable future, printing parts will take 10-100 times longer, and cost 10-100 times as much as … traditional manufacturing techniques.” That kind of premium may seem like a non-starter for 3D printing in field service. Who would pay 50 times more for the same part? There’s a little more to the story though.
To start with, for small parts, we could be talking about cents. Instead of a $0.03 bolt, maybe it costs $1.50 to make and maybe it took 30 minutes to print. So now, a company is paying a buck and change more to have an item in thirty minutes, instead of having to either wait a day to have it shipped or to have $50 in inventory sitting in a van.
Right now, that’s still a pipe dream, but there’s a business case to be made, even when the percentages seem overwhelming.
There’s also a transitional period where 3D printing augments traditional inventory management. In this system, you could operate a small, centralized 3D printing operation for specialty situations. Then, most of your inventory would be traditionally manufactured parts, with a plan b represented by a 3D printer.
The future of 3D printing
3D printing isn’t going to be mobile in the next year. I’d be shocked if it was really mobile in the next five years. Duncan Stewart, a Deloitte analyst, has said that a shift at the small business level isn’t likely to happen for the next 20 years. At the enterprise level, he’s more optimistic about a three to five year timeline.
Apart from the technical challenges in place, the other clear adoption hurdle is cost. We’re in a spot right now where consumer models are dropping quickly in cost and increasing in functionality. It’s a good trend, but it puts businesses in a bind. Buy now and get early success, or hold out for a little longer and get better quality for less.
Consumer purchases of 3D printers is on a tear. Sales are already jumping, but analysts are forecasting upwards of a fourfold increase in sales over the next five years. That’s going to reach into the business world as well.
For small field service businesses, this is going to remain a pipedream for the next few years. For larger companies, though, you could be diving into 3D printing by the end of 2017. That’s not very far away, and it’s time to start planning.
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