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Spare Parts Made on the Spot: Article from the Financial Times

Spare Parts Made on the Spot: Article from the Financial Times


The following article appeared in the Financial Times, Friday January 30th, 1998


Your car is in the garage for repairs. The engine needs a new piston, but the garage no longer holds stocks of engine components, nor does the vehicle manufacturer.

Before you get upset, you may want to know that the garage can make all of the components it needs in a matter of minutes. It will do so by using the relatively new technology of rapid prototyping (RP) rather than conventional machines such as lathes.

This scenario is yet to become a reality, but the technology is either already available or on the way. The implications are significant for manufacturers of RP machines - now used mainly to speed up product development - and their customers in manufacturing industry.

The possibilities for the new technology are numerous. RP machines could be linked via the internet to a manufacturer's product data systems to produce a replacement component on the spot.

Roadside repairs could be transformed if RP machines were installed in repair vehicles. Along with the internet, multimedia and mobile communications technologies, roadside repair personnel may be able to produce some components of the "get you home" quality that would do until a permanent repair can be made.

Elsewhere, spare parts for domestic appliances could be manufactured in high street shops or outside customers' homes in the service technician's vehicle. Using computer-aided design (CAD) technologies and virtual reality it may even be possible to design and have produced in the local DIY store, custom-made components for home improvement and repair work. Smaller, less accurate systems might also be available for home use.

The primary technology at the core of these scenarios, RP, represent a convergence of new materials and IT. This enables a means of manufacturing that involves building components layer by layer, using materials such as paper, wax and thermopolymer.

RP technologies first appeared on the market in 1988 and in the early days they were initially used to create physical models of part designs developed by engineers using CAD systems. Materials and secondary processes quickly appeared that allowed these models to be used in the production of tooling, from which components such as castings and moulded plastics could be manufactured.

But RP has now reached a stage where "these secondary tooling methods will ultimately become redundant", according to David Whinpenny, of the Rapid Prototyping and Tooling Centre at the University of Warwick.

It is already possible to manufacture tooling directly without having to create physical models first. By 2010, RP machinery that directly manufactures metal components should be in wide commercial use. This will not only remove the need for tooling and enable wider uses of RP, but will also challenge the dominance of older technologies such as the milling machine.

The technological advances needed to get there are already being addressed by RP equipment producers and university research groups. The main issues are increasing the size of components that can be produced, improving accuracy and surface finish, and expanding the range of materials to enable the manufacture of metal parts with adequate strength.

For the RP equipment suppliers a strategic shift will be needed. At present, they focus on supporting manufacturing companies or independent RP bureaux with machines suitable for factory and office use.

This will represent only one market for the vendors' technologies. Other niches, with different needs and expectations, could provide opportunities for growth, obliging vendors to develop easy-to-use commodity items out of their current more specialist RP products. On the other hand, the creation of new markets should also help vendors to recover research and development costs more quickly and create economies of scale, and that will benefit their present manufacturing customers in the longer term.

Users, meanwhile, will need to understand that RP is opening up a wide range of new strategic options. Although the current focus on using RP for taking time and cost out of new product development is understandable, it is short sighted, as it does not fully exploit RP's current capabilities, let alone future developments.

"Too many companies have a blind spot to the strategic dimension of RP technologies", says Günther Kruse, recently director of manufacturing strategy at KPMG and now a partner at Scope Management of London. "Commonly, the innovative aspects have not been fully exploited or only slowly understood by firms".

Companies should be looking at how they can apply RP technologies to support expansion into new markets, to increase market share, to differentiate from competitors, to modify the basis of competition, and to develop more innovative products and services.

The potential of RP will not be fully realised so long as companies persist in using RP processes to do only what they do already, but faster and cheaper. The opportunity to invent a different future will be left unexplored.

The author is a freelance researcher and consultant on strategic technology management issues.

The strategic issues surrounding RP technologies are explored in detail in a new management report by Cheshire Henbury



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