In August 2017, I felt like I was able to prove that the case around 3D printing for service parts management had been made (post here). But I may have been a bit premature in my assessment.
As noted in my earlier post on the topic, several organizations such as Hewlett-Packard, NASA, the US Navy, and the US Coast Guard have displayed the real-world efficacy of 3D printed service parts. However, in a recent research survey of service parts executives, early results showed that less than half could foresee their organizations using the technology within the next 5 years, let alone have a pilot in place in 2018! This number, though taken from an initial sample, was surprising to me as these service leaders noted a number of disruptive challenges facing their service parts businesses which seem ripe for 3D printing to help solve.
Chart – Most Disruptive Challenges Facing Service Parts Leaders in Next 12 Months
As listed in the above chart, service leaders are trying to navigate a world which is unpredictable, costlier, and more demanding. So why aren’t more service organizations and manufacturers kicking the tires on 3D printing or at least thinking this will be an option for them to improve customer service, decrease the cost of moving parts across a complex service network, or mitigate the uncertainty of fluctuations in future service needs. Three lessons jumped out at me as I looked through the data from the service parts leaders who chose to share their thoughts on the topic –
1- A reduction in inventory is not necessarily the driving factor for an investment in 3D printing. Service parts executives noted that the reason they would explore an investment in 3D printing was to Improve responsiveness to customers and increase satisfaction levels. So, in thinking about what might drive a decision to invest in this technology which as noted by our early results may be cost prohibitive, the cheaper option is to prioritize incremental improvements in the current resources to support parts movement across the network (i.e., mobile visibility in to parts available, better routes to get to the problem faster, better triage and diagnosis). The leap into the future of 3D printing still remains too much for these parts leaders to bite off on when other fixes are more tangible and cost-effective.
2- Solutions still aren’t business ready, at least in service. More than 80% of our initial sample of service parts leaders either felt solutions weren’t ready or they didn’t quite know yet. That comes in stark contrast to the marketing materials and excitement displayed regarding the topic. The service community often takes a wait and see approach to new technologies. The investments can be too large, the time to deploy too long, and the risk of failure too high for many service organizations to jump into new endeavors that have yet to be proven out. We still see organizations managing a field team from a whiteboard or spreadsheet. To be business-ready, these service parts leaders expressed concerns both about the technology (i.e., quality of printed materials, cost) but also about their internal capabilities to support such an investment. The latter is a challenge that won’t be easy to fix quickly and takes a strategic vision from service leadership to cross.
3- The problems 3D printing solves aren’t top of the list of critical challenges for service parts leaders. When looking at the barriers noted by this initial sample of service parts leaders to investment, I expected that service leaders would state the technology is too expensive or they didn’t have the resources to execute (which they listed). But I didn’t expect to see that a number of service leaders noted that they didn’t think this investment would actually solve a problem they felt they currently had. For the technology to gain traction it must solve problems that are top of mind for the service parts leader, otherwise, 3D printers will be relegated to a piece of cool technology and not become a priority when service parts leaders allocate budget around their key initiatives.
The exuberance of tech geeks, marketers, and analysts like myself regarding the technology of 3D printing can’t be overstated. The promise and the value seem to be there. But as noted above and in recent data, this initial sample of service leaders still struggle with making the connection between promise and value for today’s service parts organization AND gaining the necessary momentum to bite off on the investment. To close this gap, I think service parts leaders need to further explore the technology, the price of 3D printing solutions need to come down a bit, quality of printed parts has to be proven, and the market must communicate how 3D printing solves the specific pain points of the service parts leader and technology buyer. But despite the skepticism and numerous hurdles to increased investment, the interest in the subject continues to be high amongst service parts leaders and I plan to continue to gather data points and take the pulse of the market. So stayed tuned in…
And if the topic of 3D printing for service parts management is of interest to you or a colleague, please take the 10 minutes needed to share your thoughts in this survey – https://www.research.net/r/tscp3d2017. I will be publishing some additional insights in a report later this year.
As we exit 2017 and enter another year, please do let us know topics you are interested in or you feel need more insights from The Service Council Research Team.