Be it due to a breakage or malfunction of tooling or a part, manufacturers will likely acknowledge that it’s not unusual for one or more production line(s) to be down, waiting for a replacement item at any given time.

The good news is that, with additive manufacturing (AM) / 3D printing, there are ways to minimise this downtime, especially, but not only, when the culprit is tooling.

The cost of an idle line is very high. How high depends on the industry. In the food industry, for example, the costs can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, while in the automotive industry the number is $22,000 a minute! per line. That’s $1.3 million an hour. No wonder manufacturing managers will go to great lengths to get lines back up and running quickly. In extreme cases, they may fly someone to get a spare part and return with it on an additional purchased seat. The reliability, consistency, and predictability of tools and spare parts is key for avoiding such measures. Not only can AM help, it’s also more affordable than an airfare for two.

With AM you can quickly and cost-effectively 3D print tools on demand at or near your facility. An inventory of one is also possible to make the switch even faster and still replenish with AM. This ensures the line is down for the absolute minimal time and a replacement tool is on hand at any time – something simply not possible with any other manufacturing technology.

The great thing about tools is that they are designed and controlled by the manufacturer so the move to AM is an internal decision. Providing the tools are produced in a consistent manner, this move will reduce the cost of tooling and lower the line’s downtime – a win-win situation. For tools that need replacing often, it’s possible to go a step further and keep one or two 3D printed tools on hand, and when they’re being used, 3D print another.

A breed a part

AM can also help overcome other production line headaches like missing spare parts, which are another major cause of unproductive lines. Unlike tooling, machinery manufacturers own the designs of these parts, and they can offer them as digital assets that can be consistently produced on demand and in limited quantities close to your production line.

Such an approach can significantly reduce downtime. Some hardware manufacturers may go even further. In some cases, AM can produce a replacement part but it is not as robust as a part manufactured in the traditional way. In this case, the equipment manufacturer can offer a 3D printed emergency spare part to keep the line going until the regular part arrives. Like this, two short part replacement efforts can avoid weeks of downtime. The key is to get the line back up quickly without compromising quality. This comes down to consistent, repeatable tools and parts (across time and across production lines).

Thankfully, there are Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions that can protect such items from being altered, output on the wrong printer or accessed by an unauthorised party. This ensures correct, repeatable, and consistent production of the tool or part, which is a necessary ingredient to the shared goal of manufacturing managers everywhere: a functional line that’s always (or almost always) running!