Taking a shot at obsolete inventories

TODAY'S RIDDLE: What do plastic guns and the obsolete parts in your inventory have in common?

Today's answer: Not much. Tomorrow's answer, though, may be different. In the near future, the same technology that was used recently to produce a plastic pistol may make it easier to kill off those parts that are now doing nothing but gathering dust on a shelf.

A law student created a stir this month when he successfully fired a plastic gun that he built with a three-dimensional printer. The response from politicians was immediate, especially after the CAD file of the handgun was made available for download on the Internet.

“We're facing a situation where anyone — a felon, a terrorist — can open a gun factory in their garage and the weapons they make will be undetectable,” one politician said in response to this development. “It's stomach-churning.”

Well, maybe. But it can also the head spin if manufacturers consider the phrase “anyone can make.” Is there some way this technology could benefit those who produce and sell commercial truck bodies and trailers?

Fontaine, a manufacturer of an array of trailers and trailer-related products, has been using the three-dimensional printing to produce prototypes parts for fifthwheels. Installed at Fontaine's new research and development center in Trussville, Alabama, the printer and Pro Engineer CAD data team up to produce casting patterns. As a result, Fontaine can get prototype castings in a few weeks, instead of three months or longer.

This industry generates a staggering number of parts each year. As we look at the innovations that were on display at this year's Mid-America Trucking Show (see coverage beginning on Page 26), we wonder about all of the products that were introduced last year and the year before that. Today's new product quickly becomes tomorrow's standard equipment. In time, old designs and discontinued models can become a burden to support.

What if you are responsible for managing parts for your company? At what point do you remove dead parts from the shelves? We all know that the likelihood of a customer needing an obsolete part is directly proportional to the likelihood that you finally threw it away the week before. As a corollary, the value the customer places on the part you just junked increases exponentially with the value you place on that customer. It's simple physics, just like Murphy's law.

Three-dimensional printing has the potential to fix that problem. Not today or even next year. But don't be surprised someday to see a trailer dealer or truck equipment distributor fill an order for an obsolete part by “printing” it right on the spot.

Generically, the process is called additive manufacturing because it involves adding material to produce a product. In a sense, it is the antithesis of a CNC machining center that removes material instead.

Manufacturers began using additive manufacturing in the early 1980s as a way to produce prototypes. Most commonly, the printers use plastic powders and bonding agents to make their three-dimensional products. But the choice of materials is expanding, including several types of metals, ceramic, and even earthenware. Additive manufacturing service providers are already delivering prototypes made of a wide range of materials. No molds or castings are required. You can send them your drawing, and they send you your part.

It may be fair to compare the current state of three-dimensional printing to where commercial printing was in the 1970s. At a time when people banged on typewriters, computerized typesetting machines were an expensive option when companies wanted professional-looking type for flyers and brochures. Text generated by typewriters (or by dot-matrix printers) was not worthy of sending to customers.

That began to change in the 1980s with the advent of desktop publishing. Early desktop laser printers, though, cost $1,000 or more. We can buy better lasers today for less than $100, and it costs us pennies to print what we used to pay professional typographers hundreds of dollars to typeset.

That probably will be the case with additive manufacturing. Three-dimensional printers cost thousands of dollars today. Expect them to cost less and do more tomorrow. “Inks” are prohibitively expensive today, but they undoubtedly will cost less and perform better with time. The bonding agents that hold the powered material together will improve, and researchers will find ways to expand the physical properties of these agents.

As prices come down and capabilities increase, it may become feasible to bring dead parts back to life while the customer waits. A 100% fill rate has always been elusive, and there's no guarantee that parts departments will ever be able to fill every customer's order. But as technology improves, parts managers may have a shot at it.

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