3D Printing Obsolete Parts
We've talked before about 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, a technology rapidly coming into much greater prominence. Every day sees more developments, including producing components made from metals, plastics, and even diamonds. 3D printing is particularly valuable for recreating obsolete parts. 3D printing obsolete parts is a cost-effective solution that can keep old equipment running for much longer, and even improve its efficiency.
Why 3D Print Obsolete Parts?
Machines wear out, even if they were supposedly built to last. There's no clear way of determining how long a piece of equipment should last, but several factors contribute to its lifespan. These can include type and frequency of use, the materials it's producing or processing, the environment in which it's situated, and whether you carry out predictive maintenance.
The age-old practice when repairing equipment was to replace worn parts with spares, either from stock or purchased to order. But what if such parts are no longer available? With every passing year that your machinery continues to run, the likelihood of being able to obtain spares for it diminishes. At Rowse, we're experts in the sourcing of obsolete parts, but even we sometimes hit a brick wall. The process also takes time as we hunt down suppliers, so 3D printing obsolete parts is often a faster and more efficient solution.
Advantages Of 3D Printing Obsolete Parts
There are many advantages to this process, including speed, versatility and cost. Where a broken part once needed to be reverse-engineered by a skilled craftsman to produce a replacement, this can now be done with the aid of technology. Scanning and storing a 3D design, with precise measurements and specifications, is a relatively simple process. Parts can be produced on demand, and there is generally no minimum order requirement.
If all obsolete components are scanned when (or even before) they break down, a replacement can be ordered immediately from your existing files. A library of spare parts can be built up as a digital resource that can be called upon instantly if a breakdown occurs. It's also a good idea to digitise old parts catalogues, so that you have an inventory of 3D print-ready files available with exact tolerances for a wide range of original parts. Using this method, you can still maintain a large inventory, but it'll take up no physical space on your premises.
Even if a broken part needs to be reassembled and reconstructed by a design engineer at the time of its failure, it's still faster to use that reconstruction and print it than it is to send it out for machining. Some parts can even be reconstructed from a photograph, and in cases of outworn design, improvements can be incorporated that produce an item better in function and appearance than before. 3D printing obsolete parts can reduce your lead-in time from weeks to days, perhaps even hours.
The costs are also considerably less, particularly if printing is done in-house. Even if you sub-contract your printing to a specialist service, it's still going to cost less than producing the part in a machine shop. It's also more environmentally friendly, using less energy and producing less waste than machining replacement parts.
Disadvantages Of 3D Printing Obsolete Parts
While 3D Printing is versatile in the materials it can use, there are several that just won't work. Materials need to be worked within certain temperatures, and must be malleable enough for their structure not to break down under certain stresses. For example, the printed layers can delaminate or buckle in some orientations. Very few printable materials are food safe, and often cannot be recycled. Some items just can't be reproduced, particularly in the electronics field.
The build size is restricted by a 3D printer's small print chambers, so larger items have to be printed in separate parts and assembled. It takes more time to print more parts, and costs will be increased by the need for manual assembly. Other post-processing labour can also slow down production time, such as removing any support materials from the finished product and smoothing the surface. This might mean sanding, air or heat drying, water jetting, chemical soaking, and more. Factors governing the clean-up include the type of technology used for the printing, the size of the printed item, and its intended application.
There is some concern over the potential for design inaccuracies if a 3D printer doesn't have high enough tolerances. In this case, the printed parts may not be precisely identical to the original design. Although you can fix this in post-processing, it will impact production time and costs. There are also problems with quality control, as well as issues around copyright and OEM certification. It's not easy to see how appropriate standards could be applied and maintained on replicated products.
At Rowse, we print a lot of labels, and at one point, our label printers began to break down. We weren't in a position to invest in replacements at that time, but we found that a particular part we needed to fix the label printers was now obsolete. This small bracket would keep the printers going for a while longer, and we tried everywhere to find a replacement. Even with our expertise, we couldn't source it anywhere.
Our solution was to create a 3D model of the bracket and print it using a fused filament fabrication machine. This meant we could replace the bracket at minimal cost, without waiting several months for a specialist supplier or being charged extortionate rates for the privilege. 3D printing of this obsolete part allowed us to get the machine back up and running within 24 hours - and saved us having to buy a whole new machine.
Cheaper, Quicker… and Sometimes Better
There is great value in 3D printing obsolete parts where there is no option to acquire them from any other source. These are items where OEM certification is less necessary, but where designs can be printed instantly from stored specs and even improved. It's typically cheaper and a lot faster than machining. Since the original parts are obsolete, it's the only alternative to junking the whole machine. If 3D printed parts can keep it going for a few more cycles, then the pros must outweigh the cons.
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