Daimler Trucks North America recently announced a pilot program to produce plastic parts using 3D printing. “The mission of this program is to embrace new technologies as a way to deliver service to our customers through better parts availability,” said Angela Timmen, aftersales purchasing manager for interior/exterior cab and major components for DTNA.
The pilot program is aimed at older trucks with hard-to-source parts and parts with long lead times, she explained, offering this scenario: “One hypothetical example might be an older aftermarket part that required significant investments to develop and tool when it was in production, but now only sells a few a year in the aftermarket. If the tool were to break, it might make sense to 3D print the replacement parts instead of repeating the original investments.”
Not only is this an economic decision, she said, but it also helps avoid making a fleet wait days or weeks for a replacement part.
The program is focusing on a variety of parts with different characteristics to allow the company to learn as much as possible during the pilot.
There are many who see more far-reaching consequences of 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing. “I see [3D printed parts] as being transformative,” said Eric Starks, chairman and CEO of FTR. “I think this will be one of the biggest trends we see in 2018 and into 2019. I believe every supplier in some capacity will have an additive manufacturing program before long.”
Both Starks and David Gerrard, managing partner at Cornerstone Growth Advisors, see 3D printing introducing more customization to the trucking industry. Timmen agreed: “In the future, technologies like 3D printing could give us new ways to mass-customize our trucks and provide better service to our customers.”
As with any new technology, 3D printing has its challenges. Gerrard enumerated some of them: “How big will the printers be? How fast will they be? How expensive? How versatile on the raw materials one can use to print parts? And maybe the biggest ones are, where will the printer be based and who will own it?”
Additive manufacturing has the potential to change the current supply chain. Gerrard wondered whether contract-manufacturing companies with locations scattered across the country could even take the place of parts distribution centers. “I think the mindset of this technology is thinking about moving from weeks to days to hours [to get parts],” he said. “As long as it takes cost and time out of the supply chain, then it is incredibly beneficial to fleets.”
Starks sees ramifications beyond just replacement parts. Depending on the size and scope of additive manufacturing, the way freight gets moved could change. “Let’s say there is a plastic piece of a component that is inexpensive and has traditionally come from offshore and moved through the ports to distribution centers. If parts are produced through additive manufacturing, you will be moving more commodities like plastics and resins and even metal and wood rather than finished goods.”
DTNA’s initial foray into 3D printed parts is a good way to test the waters and find out about fleet acceptance. “The industry is probably going to be less accepting of a critical part being made via additive manufacturing at first,” Starks said. However, he believes that once these non-critical parts prove their worth and have low failure rates, “then we will move fairly swiftly to using additive manufacturing for other, more critical parts.”
While DTNA has only launched a pilot program, Starks believes, “it actually will become a very robust system fairly quickly for the industry.”
Watch a video about how the 3D printing process works: