Technology is growing at a rapid pace and predicting the technology trends that will become common place in the future has become a difficult task. The latest and greatest technologies are not always the ones that have the biggest impact and the buzz surrounding these technologies is not the best way to gauge the affect they might have in the real world.

3D printing is a great example of a technology that could have a huge impact on everyday life and publications like Forbes, the World Economic Forum, and Harvard Business Review have all predicted it will 'change the world'.

The discussion surrounding the technology is also vast and in the UK alone there were over 1,200 articles published last month about it. With so much interest, it is important to understand how much of the discussion is realistic and how much is ambitious, especially in industries like field services where the technology could arguably have a big impact. So what is 3D printing, and will it change the way field services operates?

What is it?

3D printing is used to describe a range of digital manufacturing tools which produce 3D parts layer-by-layer. There are lots of different types of 3D printing processes, some that use molten plastic, and others that use metals like gold or silver. In China concrete houses have been produced using this method, but whatever the material, the principal of using digital designs to produce items layer by layer remains the same in each case.

3D printing is more of a new manufacturing technique than it is an offshoot of printing and this sometimes causes confusion. 3D printing’s more accurate name is ‘additive manufacturing’, but this term isn’t used nearly as much.

What is the advantage over traditional manufacturing?

Amongst other advantages, 3D printing isn’t constrained by tooling which means that items don’t have to be manufactured in large quantities to be economically viable. Instead, with 3D printing, parts can be manufactured where they are needed and at a rate that is appropriate for the demand. 3D printing is also able to produce complex parts with a high degree of accuracy, a process which currently requires expensive equipment.

What could this mean for field services?

It is possible that in the future, crucial spare parts in the field services supply chain will be manufactured by the engineers themselves using 3D printing. At present, the supply chain behind getting parts to engineers is a complex interconnected web of suppliers, OEMs and distributors which could be simplified greatly if the engineer was able to produce parts for themselves.

For example, if a field engineer ran out of a certain screw or bolt, instead of raising an order with a supplier, the engineer could, in theory, just print the part they needed.

The manufacturing cost of producing the part would be similar, but money would be saved from stock holdings and logistics. However, for this to become a reality 3D printers would need to be significantly quicker. Even small parts currently take around two hours to print, highly impractical if an engineer needed to print out hundreds.

What next for this technology?

3D printing is not going to replace traditional manufacturing techniques, at least not in the short to medium term. Instead, traditional manufacturing techniques are going to be supplemented by 3D printing. It is already possible for highly complex parts to be produced this way and in healthcare, cups for hip replacements and other reconstructive surgeries are now almost all produced using this method. In field services, more complex parts may start to be manufactured using 3D printing, but this won’t have a profound impact on the way supply chains operate.

The potential is there, however, for engineers to start producing their own parts and this would fundamentally change the way we view certain items. Stock holdings could be greatly reduced and the virtual warehouses of the future could be databases of part blueprints for engineers to simply download to create. For this to happen the technology will need a lot more development, but it is exciting none-the-less.

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