Additive manufacturing (AM) using 3D printing is now considered a promising way to optimise spare parts management by reducing levels of inventory, saving on lead times and logistics, negating down-time and reducing overall costs.

Having access to parts as needed that can be 3D printed is a positive solution for industries operating in remote locations such as mining, oil & gas production, power stations, farming equipment and wind farms. The convenience factor offers a convincing argument for on-demand production for parts that unexpectedly break, wear out before time, or become affected by environmental conditions.

An emerging solution for the provision of AM-produced spare parts is being offered by German company Bionic Production, with its revolutionary mobile, modular 3D printing system, or better known as a “factory in a box”. Bionic Production has an extensive history in design, development and service, producing the renowned Bugatti brake caliper using an SLM Solutions multi-laser system. By applying bionic design techniques, the initial model was reviewed, the maximum possible tensile strength determined, and the topology optimised for 3D printing. Using its technical and methodological expertise and experience as 3D printers and developers, Bionic Production now supplies the Mobile Smart Factory, which enables cost-efficient and fast supply of both metal and plastic spare parts.

Spare parts management is a critical and challenging element for a profitable business operation. Holding unnecessary parts can be a costly exercise, as illustrated by research findings in Europe where companies said that more than 10% of spare parts kept in stock were obsolete or even not needed. Production of on-demand spare parts using 3D printing technology has become more important in the last few years with limited manufacturing and transport restrictions, so delivering the most advanced manufacturing technologies in a convenient package is set to improve these shortcomings.

Some companies have already recognised the potential of 3D printing spare parts, developing their skill base and competence in the area of AM. One example is the German railway operator Deutsche Bahn, which has now printed more than 7,000 spare parts, resulting in a significant reduction in lead times and logistics costs.

According to the World Economic Forum, 3D printing of spare parts could save costs and time worth US$30bn. Unfortunately, the uptake by businesses is still minimal, with concerns relating to identifying a real business case, and to finding skilled and well-trained designers, engineers and technicians. Now, in Australia as with other countries around the world, the modular, fully equipped Mobile Smart Factory has the advantage of providing a simple and effective solution.

The Mobile Smart Factory comprises two standard 20-foot shipping containers: one ‘box’ contains the ‘office’, while the second contains the laser system and post processing facilities. Within the two boxes all pre and post-production processing equipment is provided. This flexibility of software and hardware allows not just for the production of replacement parts, but the opportunity is afforded with 3D printing for developing new, more efficient parts that can actually be tried on location. The Smart Factory can easily be transported to a remote location, by truck, rail or ship. It is fully water-proof and durable and can be relocated to where it is most needed.

To begin, each customer starts with identifying the kind of application required. Working together with the Bionic Production team, the 3D parts for printing are identified, scanned, or ideas and drawings are prepared in CAD format. The files are then made ready for the operator, stored on the virtual system ready for use with the push of a button to commence printing. Detailed specifications and documentation are on hand to support the user at each process step. Each Mobile Smart Factory is tailor-made to suit the needs of the customer.

While a powder bed system is not an option due to the challenges of handling metal powder in remote locations, the Smart Factory may include wire arc additive manufacturing technology (WAAM). A metal AM laser system, the WAAM process uses arc welding to build up the product in a layering process. The Hybrid machine from METROM offers speeds of 600 cubic centimetres per hour, and a large build space with a diameter of 700mm and height of 450mm. Offering well-established technology, the system is easy to use and handle, even providing post-processing facilities for milling and drilling. The flexibility of this hybrid system means a fused deposition modelling (FDM) system for polymer products can also be offered. This flexibility provides a new advantage and can accommodate a broad number of industry groups as both metal and polymer parts can be built using the Mobile Smart Factory.

“Be it through the production of polymer and/or metal parts on-site, we have designed a solution that covers the entire AM process, from pre-processing to post-processing,” says Dr Johannes Schmidt, Senior Project Manager at Bionic Production.

Already instances of remote usage exist – for example using a Mobile Smart Factory can support wind farm operators on or off-shore, by printing and repairing pitch bearings on site. A pitch bearing can be designed and printed in several segments, offering real advantages in terms of replicability. Damaged segments can be readily exchanged on site without dismantling the blades or hub. Another example is to print flange connectors used in oil & gas production. It is possible to print these in as little as one hour.

Bionic Production has brought to market a simple solution that opens up more opportunities for industries rarely seen as users of AM technology, but industries that will benefit from a supported, simple on-site application. Now available in Australia through Raymax Applications, each installation at the client’s designated site will be accompanied by initial advice, training, strategy development and a period of co-operative work in the operation of the Mobile Smart Factory.