How 3D printing of airline spare parts and a $100 printer could take some pain out of a supply chain

When you first hear about it, printing airline spare parts sounds like a spectacularly bad idea. Jammed, spotty and low toner aren’t really words that you would like to hear when flying at 40,000 feet. However, that is exactly what companies like GE is doing with 3D printing.

3D technology enables three dimensional objects to be printed or layered by computer-controlled robotics. 3D printing has been around for more than a decade, but it is only in the last 3-5 years that the technology has taken off. Technology researcher Canalys, projects that the global 3D printing market will increase from US$5.2 billion in 2015 to $20.2 billion by 2019.

GE plans to 3D print 85,000 fuel nozzles for 5,000 airplane engines between 2016 and 2021. Before the reconfiguration; the nozzle consisted of 20 separate parts procured from different suppliers, which first had to be jointed and welded together.

3D printing impacts every stage of the product development lifecycle; from design, packaging, storage and delivery. For manufacturers, it reduces waiting time for a mould,which often comes at a high cost. For GE, with fewer suppliers involved, it eliminates lead times, simplifies procurement and accelerates the launching of new designs. Fixing design flaws are also easier and cost effective as there is no need for reverse logistics; sending components back and forth to suppliers.

In 2014, Maersk started installing 3D printers on their ships in order to print-on-demand spare parts. For Maersk, forecasting the required spare parts on a long voyage can be tricky. With 3D printing Maesk can reduce the inventory holding costs and the need to ship spare parts to ports along the route.

3D printing also enables companies to introduce limited editions or customisable 3D printed products. In Israel, South Africa and India, surgeons use a 3D printer to create jaw implants for reconstructive facial surgeries. Experts believe that 3D printing and genotyping (the process of determining differences in genetic makeup) will also accelerate the growth of personalised medicine.

As the Maersk example demonstrates, 3D printing is already impacting areas with accessibility difficulties. South African inventor Richard van As, uses 3D prosthetics limbs in war-torn Syria and in rural African villages; and in Zambia, Priscilla Lumano-Mulanga a Research Fellow at Vanderbilt University, employs a 3D printed device to test patients for Malaria in isolated areas.

By reducing or eliminating transportation shipments, 3D printing also lowers the carbon footprint for companies. In Togo and Tanzania e-waste is used for printing material, often from discarded printers and computers. It is estimated that Tanzania generates close to 9,500 metric tons of e-waste from computers alone.

However, 3D printing will unlikely replace traditional manufacturing as it generally targets low volume, high customisable products. The current printing process is also much slower than traditional mass production. But for low-wage industrialising countries, 3D printing could be highly disruptive.

Nonetheless, 3D printing supported with open-source software could also act as a leapfrog technology for African economies whose manufacturing industry has yet to experience “Asian-style industrial growth.” In Togo,  Kodjo Afate’s 3D printer using e-waste costs a mere $100, or one night stay in Lome’s Ibis hotel.

Dr. Calestous Juma, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who focusses on innovation, is cautiously optimistic about the potential impact of 3D printing on the African continent. He notes that African governments can play a facilitating role by integrating 3D printing into their industrial and educational programmes. However, 3D printing will not solve all the continent’s ills; as print-on-demand infrastructure has yet to be invented.