A few weeks ago we told you about Fab, the book from Neil Gershenfeld that describes the upcoming "personal fabrication revolution." A few days later this concept found its way into another post on The Coming Manufacturing Revolution, where we talked about a confluence of events and technologies that will produce changes… threats and opportunities… like we’ve never seen before.
BusinessWeek’s May 23rd issue has an article entitled "If You Can Draw It, They Can Make It", which talks about the Army’s "Mobile Parts Hospital." This is in effect a single air-transportable container that has workstations and robotic machine tools to fabricate spare parts on the fly. Lasers can sinter powdered metal, layer by layer, to create fully functional replacements for basically any metal component. This approach saves weeks and even months of downtime, especially on difficult-to-source spare parts. These minifactories are already in use in Kuwait and Iraq, at a cost of approximately $1 million each.
The first series of patents on "3D printers" were filed by in the 1980’s, and currently the industry is experiencing 30%+ growth and sales of nearly $1 billion. The dominant companies are 3D Systems, Stratasys, Z Corp, and Germany’s EOS. Sony and DuPont also have significant research programs in the field.
Although most of the demand comes from more traditional rapid prototyping applications to speed up the R&D process, the industry is starting to shift to full "rapid manufacturing"… final product mass customization. It is more costly to make one part at a time, but think about the overall supply chain (or lack thereof) cost.
Perhaps ten years from now there will be a "mobile parts hospital" in many auto repair shops, eliminating the need to source spare parts, especially those of older models, from auto parts companies.