Quick! How do you get hold of a spare part for a rare engine when your warehouse is hours away? One answer: Make it yourself with the aid of a three-dimensional (3-D) printer. As a result of recent advances in the technology, users are now able to produce instant parts from digital blueprints, thereby avoiding the need to maintain vast inventories and rely on costly expedited transportation.
Among those experimenting with the technology are Mercedes-Benz Trucks and the U.S. Coast Guard, which have shared details of their latest tests of 3-D printing (also known as "additive manufacturing"). Last month, Mercedes printed strong metal versions of parts with the same quality as original stock for the first time, according to Andreas Deuschle, head of marketing and operations in customer service and parts at Mercedes-Benz Trucks. The company now saves money on tools, storage, and transport costs by 3-D printing small batches of spare parts and special items, creating complex, heat-resistant metal structures, Deuschle said. The first 3-D metal part produced was a highly resistant thermostat cover for the company's Unimog series of multi-purpose, all-wheel-drive medium trucks.
Sailors with the U.S. Coast Guard are following a similar strategy. Researchers at the service's Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Conn., are now studying how 3-D printing technology might improve mission readiness through logistical support, according to a statement. Researchers have provided 3-D printers for crew use on five Coast Guard cutters and at several operational shore units.
In one trial, crew members aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Spencer printed out a replacement for a hard-to-get switch used in a critical on-board system for "pennies on the dollar" compared with commissioning the manufacture of the part on dry land, the service said. In another test, staff on the USCGC Healy, which operates mostly in the Arctic and Bering seas, printed parts to repair a remotely operated vehicle that had been crushed in the ice, allowing the icebreaker to complete its mission.