3D Printing – Disruptive Technology for Your Shop

How many times have you faced unnecessary downtime because your local dealer did not stock the part you needed? Need a door handle for that 1971 Diamond Reo C-116 that you are restoring as a show truck? Or a tie rod end for a Cascadia on the weekend after the dealer has closed? In both cases, you are either stuck making a lot of phone calls and praying that someone has stock close to you or, in the restoration case, you have to troll the internet and hope that someone has a used version of what you want in decent shape. 3D printing has the potential of being a game changer for you.

Currently some of the OEMs are using 3D printing on a limited number of parts for older models instead of stocking them. This gives the potential to quickly produce one off parts as they are needed instead of scheduling a short production run, pay for machine set-up charges and then keep them in a warehouse and hope they sell. To the end user it means that obscure and rarely needed parts can be available to you within days instead of being on back order indefinitely.

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The next evolution will be for those parts to be printed at your local dealer, reducing the lead time even further. As an example, your local Freightliner dealer will no longer need to keep plastic trim pieces for a Sterling, a FL120 or any other discontinued model in stock. If they don’t stock them you can get them within hours (depending on the complexity of the part), possibly within the same lead time as they currently take to pick your order out of their warehouse.

The ultimate use of this technology would be for the carrier to have a 3D printer in their facility with the ability to print their own parts. Imagine putting in an order to your dealer and within minutes they can send the CAD file to a connected computer in your building and then the part starts printing as your mechanic waits. Eventually the diagnostic device connected to the truck will have the ability to “phone home” to your shop, let you know what is needed for the repair, allow you to authorize the parts purchase and then print it before the truck arrives. While not all parts will be able to be printed, a large number will be reducing your inventory carrying costs potentially down to just tires, fluids and filters.

3D printing eventually can bring a near “just in time” inventory system to every shop. Currently these printers work best with all plastic parts but printers with the ability to print with metal alloys are starting come on the market. Where there will be concerns will be for parts that require specific metal alloys and/or densities to meet quality or safety requirements. So, it will be a lot harder to properly print that tie rod end than it will be to print that door handle. However, only a couple of years ago these printers were only able to make small solid plastic parts. Now they are able to print the insides first and then create the outer casing for much more complicated parts. Mercedes has recently announced that they will be printing certain parts at their regional warehouses on demand. The other OEMs will be following soon. The economics of using 3D printing instead of carrying inventory give more than ample justification for moving towards printing where possible. This will drive further innovations in terms of size of the printers, what sort of materials they can use and how complex a part they can make. This will in turn reduce the cost of the printers, eventually making them affordable to even small repair shops or to be put into your smaller terminals.

Eventually we will see even the major parts suppliers like an Eaton sending the CAD files for you to print a complex component like a replacement transmission gear or have Cummins send you the ability to print an oil pan all as you wait. On the OEM side, this sort of production may encourage additional research into composite materials that will allow the components to be lighter and stronger than today’s parts.

The benefits of this technology will be felt all through the supply chain. Manufacturers and dealerships will no longer need to stock parts for out of production vehicles. Short production runs will be eliminated with their inherent high fixed costs as the tooling and set up charges need to be amortized over a relatively small number of parts produced. Unnecessary shipping and handling charges will be eliminated as the parts will be produced closer to where they are needed. While some manufacturing jobs may be lost, more parts production can be brought back from overseas as the printed parts will gain a competitive advantage over items sourced in foreign countries. Some clean up and finish machining may be required and will be much better handled by local suppliers. End users will benefit by reduced lead times, reducing or eliminating the need to inventory certain items and carriers with older equipment may be able to extend the useful life of those vehicles. There will be a limitation on what can be printed (for example a brake shoe will be difficult to produce this way due to unique mix of materials that go into them) but over time these limitations will get overcome. Reduced costs and reduced downtime make this a win/win technology that’s coming to a shop near you sooner than you may think.