Digitalising and 3D printing spare parts enables manufacturing anywhere and anytime

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The digitalisation of spare parts is a step towards more sustainable business and reducing the carbon footprint of industry. It also reduces costs and improves the availability of spare parts with quicker access. VTT and Aalto University have been conducting first-class research for five years now to promote digitalising and 3D printing spare parts.

- We had two extensive research projects where we solved problems related to the introduction of digital spare parts and developed different tools and operating models while working closely with the companies involved in the projects. Many companies have already had successful trials of 3D printing spare parts, and in the next phase, the aim is a wider implementation of digital spare parts, says Senior Scientist Sini Metsä-Kortelainen from VTT. 

- The new business from digital spare parts project by VTT and Aalto University is a great example of Finnish research on 3D printing. Companies have huge potential to grow and improve their maintenance business with 3D printing. In the recently completed research project, we identified new ways for industry to make use of additive manufacturing, says Tero Hämeenaho, Department Manager responsible for 3D printing at Etteplan.

Digitalisation of spare parts has significant benefits

Companies that manufacture machinery and equipment are becoming more interested in the digitalisation of spare parts: maintenance services make up a significant part of the business of these companies and spare parts tie up a lot of capital. Companies are particularly facing issues with old equipment that no longer have spare parts available, but repairing them is the sustainable choice both economically and environmentally. 

- Since based on digital data, 3D printing makes it possible to produce individual parts or small series quickly and cost-effectively, as there is no need for separate tools such as moulds. Storing digital spare parts does not take up shelf space, and manufacturing can be carried out according to need and close to the end user. The availability of spare parts is improved, transport distances are shorter, and natural resources are not wasted on parts that end up on storage shelves indefinitely, says Mika Salmi, Research Director at Aalto University’s ADD Lab.

Comprehensive data on 3D printing materials

The first bottleneck in the introduction of digital spare parts is the difficulty of automatically identifying the parts whose size and shape make it reasonable and economically viable to manufacture them by 3D printing. It has been estimated that it would be profitable to digitalise roughly 10% of all spare parts. A recent research report presents methods of identifying parts in spare parts libraries that are suitable for 3D printing. For example, one spare parts library can contain 200,000 parts, and methods for examining this data have been developed using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Another major challenge is to find the right material for a specific spare part among the 3D printing materials available. There are notably fewer 3D printing materials available than for conventional manufacturing technologies, and in many cases, the properties of printed materials are different from traditional materials. The manufacturing process must take into account the special features of 3D printing, and proper documentation and quality control as well as property testing of the components. The research report provides extensive data on 3D printing materials and related heat treatments, differences between processes, and corrosion and UV resistance. The report also includes summarised instructions on the documentation of manufacturing and testing critical parts as well as ways to embed intelligence in 3D printed parts, which opens up routes for more efficient condition monitoring and the traceability of parts. 

The New business from digital spare parts follow-up project concluded at the end of September 2020. The final report summarises the results of the project and contains links to other project publications that focus more extensively on each research topic.

The project was funded by Business Finland, Kiwa Inspecta Oy, KONE Oyj, Valmet Technologies Oy and Wärtsilä Services Switzerland Ltd. In addition, 3DTech Oy and Etteplan were involved in the consortium and the steering of the project, and they also received funding from Business Finland for their own projects. 

Link to the research report
 

Categories for spare parts
Tools based on AI are developed for recognition of 3D printable spare parts from images. With the tools it is possible to classify spare parts in several categories. Drawing: Joni Reijonen, VTT
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