What is good about inventory? Being able to find a part when you need it. What’s not so good about inventory? Where to even start…
First of all, it’s expensive. The facility, maintenance, staffing, and overhead—all of it costs big money.
Next, inventory is almost always wrong. Even the best forecast is never 100% accurate, meaning shortages creating new costs or excesses that are eventually scrapped.
And while inventory most likely finds the right part, it’s always in a fixed physical location. Even if the part is found, it might not be in the right place—further adding to logistics costs and time delays.
But what if you could have the right part when and where you needed it—and without the associated expense? What if inventory could be dramatically reduced without impacting supply?
That’s the promise of additive manufacturing.
I personally come from the aerospace industry, so strongly believe the most impactful benefits of additive manufacturing are the ability to create lighter weight parts and completely disrupt the supply chain.
Light-weighting is intuitive. Design freedom coming from working in an all-digital environment consolidates assemblies into fewer parts and optimizes designs by using less material. This delivers more effective structures with greater fuel efficiency.
But supply-chain reinvention and near zero-inventory targets are more difficult to understand—at least until you feel it.
The first time I felt it, I was pulled into a program in crisis. A casting was months behind schedule, but we found a way to skip an entire retooling cycle by printing the casting patterns.
More than nine weeks evaporated to just a couple of hours.
If it was possible to 3D printed the part—in this case an engine temperature sensor housing—directly, our team could have saved more than twice that.
The time savings resulting from 3D printed tools and 3D printed production parts are far too compelling to ignore.
Applying the same template to the aftermarket can be even more persuasive.
There’s nothing like the dreaded “AOG” [aircraft on-ground] call. It is neither generating revenue for the airline nor delivering passengers to destinations.
AOG at the same time drives instant action and massive expense. Keeping a vehicle out of service for a single part is completely unacceptable, so heaven and earth are moved to get the right parts around the world in a matter of hours and return the aircraft to service.
Countless millions are wasted each year in expedited shipping and logistics in an attempt to get parts to where they’re needed. And these costs don’t even factor in an array of associated expenses: Canceled flights require passengers to be rebooked and placed in hotels overnight. Flight crews must be flown to new locations, scheduled, and then re-deployed alongside all new personnnel. Ultimately, even more damaging is the tremenous impact an AOG can have on an airline’s brand.
So it’s no surprise the aftermarket began rushing into additive manufacturing upon demonstrating the Stratasys Fortus 900mc 3D Printer and ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic were certifiable solutions for aircraft cabin interior parts.
Today, as we push qualification even further with FAA and NIAR oversight—and as other maturing 3D printing technologies follow suit—this is becoming remarkably clear. The market will witness distributed production across a range of components: low-volume, high-mix replacement parts 3D printed on-demand and on-site rather than leveraging dispersed inventory or panic mode part procurement.
And while inventory certainly has its place, that place is digital—and the power of additive manufacturing to approach zero inventory is becoming far too good to ignore.
Can you feel it yet?