The promise of 3D printers revolutionizing service is still science fiction for many. We may have thought we would be there already based on the hype in the news or on Twitter. But as noted 3 years ago, actual use cases of 3D printing for the field or service parts are still rare. In 2014, TSC surveyed 175 manufacturers and service organizations and noted that only 3% of sampled organizations had capabilities around 3D printing, with another 7% building the business case for investments in the technology. For these organizations, 3D printing has shown the ability to go beyond the manufacturing floor or engineering where it’s primarily used to support new product development. In service, 3D printing can support repair operations, end of life parts management, and replacement of parts which are not readily available on site or near by.
This relatively slow adoption curve highlighted earlier resembles other innovative technology leaps of the near past (i.e., Augmented Reality, wearables). However, unlike those other technologies, 3D printing seems stagnant in a perpetual state of wait and see. So how do we get past this state of neutral and hit the accelerator? To find out, I interviewed a few executives who have taken that leap. Here are 5 takeaways from my conversations:
1- Look at 3D printing as another tool in your toolkit, not the only tool. Cost can force service leaders to elevate the uses of 3D printing beyond the appropriate level. This should not be the case. This technology should be leveraged to support use cases where fitting. Don’t look to 3D printing as a silver bullet to solve inventory management problems. 3D printing technology shouldn’t be expected to replace proper parts planning and partner management. Based on an analysis of part scarcity, criticality, or price, an organization might find the opportunity to use 3D printing as a solution in their overall inventory management processes. 3D printing technology provides service leaders with the catalyst to re-evaluate parts usage, as better understand if in fact there is a business case. While the technology might precede the actual business case, it does offer a point in time for companies to analyze their service parts holdings and usage.
2- Give the technology to the front line and let them explore the possibilities. Innovation should be rooted in practicality. You should ask yourself, “does this solve a problem?”. Thinking of 3D printing technology as cool misses the point, and could end up as an expensive toy for the engineering team. Allowing the service team to recommend uses to problems they face every day is the path to maximizing the value of the investment. Mandating the use or isolating the technology in the back office will cap the ability to see how this tool can support service and useful innovation.
3- Break the barrier between IT, engineering, and the service team. Often 3D printing capabilities are viewed as an IT or engineering function for new product development or manufacturing. Though true, 3D printing can also support replacement parts and service. But in order to maximize the opportunity, service must be included in the discussion. For those organizations that are using 3D printing in their manufacturing processes, there are lessons that can be carried over to the service parts arena which could help lower the cost pressures and learning curve. This technology also demands quite a bit of IT involvement, and thus requires IT and service to be in complete alignment. IT and engineering should spend some time with the service team to better understand their needs and how 3D printing can support service. Opening a dialogue and creating opportunities to collaborate around the technology will spark limitless ideas which might actually solve real problems faced by the service team.
4- Explore other industries to understand the possible. The use case for 3D printing may not be evident in your industry as evidenced by the low adoption numbers listed above and in previous TSC research. But looking at how organizations from other industries are using this technology may open your eyes. For a sample of the possible, check out here, or here, or learn from this innovative team. On land, in the sea, or in space, organizations across a diverse set of industries and environments are exploring this technology. Remove the mindset that you’re not ready or this won’t fit your business. If these organizations and industries which aren’t immune to regulations and cost pressures can make 3D printing technology work, you should be able too.
5- Bring support services to the discussion. The excitement found in 3D printing can quickly turn into a strategy of let’s print everything. But it is important to be mindful of which parts can or should be printed. In industries where multiple suppliers manufacture the parts on the equipment, service needs to be mindful of which parts are proprietary and which can be recreated. Also, in highly regulated industries, service leaders need to be aware of which parts can’t be printed due to regulatory restrictions. To ensure the promise of 3D printing can be properly executed, IT, product design, legal, and partners must be engaged and a part of the process. Again, having a strategy means more than just thinking about the future applications of this technology. You need to ensure what you plan can and should be done to avoid roadblocks, delays, or lawsuits down the road.
3D printing is still early days. However, the promise is there for the taking for companies that are willing to take that leap. But too often, we let skepticism thwart our imaginations. I hope to take away some of that skepticism and apprehension, so look for more from The Service Council on this topic as we will hold a Smarter Services Webcast in October on 3D Printing’s Impact on the Service Supply Chain. If you are interested in learning from some leading-edge service organizations, please register for the event.