Will 3D Printing Change the Future of Field Service?

Close your eyes. Do you see machine-printed meals in your future? What about a trip to your 3D printed office building? An on-demand toy printer in your home?

Now open your eyes. That’s not the future, that’s the present. It’s hard to keep up with the dozens of technologies impacting the future of field service. Despite all the hype, you should certainly keep an eye on 3D printing.

Why? We think 3D printing will impact the bottom line for field service organizations willing to innovate.  Below we will discuss the current state of 3D printing. And we will uncover three opportunities it will offer field service professionals down the line.

The State of the 3D Printing Today

Unless you’ve been living under a large rock, you’ve heard the buzz about 3D printing. In truth, Additive Layer Manufacturing (what the pros call it) goes back several decades. The process and equipment have evolved rapidly. It allows increased consumer access to raw materials, engineering knowledge, and printers. Using Computer Aided Design plans, 3D printing machines slowly add thin layers of melted plastic, aluminum, and powders together. They usually make Star Wars figurines, but they can also form replacement parts.

According to the Wohlers 2016 Report, the additive manufacturing industry has grown by nearly 26% to $5.1 billion in the past year alone. I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this all a bunch of useless action figures and consumer hype? Fortunately for field service organizations, it’s not.

Devices like MakerBot and Ultimaker have allowed businesses and consumers to quickly prototype small plastic replacement parts and toys from the comfort of their own homes. And because 3D printers continue to get smaller and more affordable, they are becoming widespread.

In truth, the biggest opportunities for 3D printing are commercial. Over the past few years, 3D printing has developed deep roots in retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and even aerospace organizations. A recent report from Sculpteo showed that 93% of respondents considered 3D printing a competitive advantage in their strategy. Likewise, 77% plan to increase spending on additive manufacturing in the coming year. And nearly half lean on 3D printing to speed up product development.

Unfortunately, field service seems to have fallen behind. Few, if any field service organizations currently fulfill service requests with field-based 3D printers. But this won’t always be the case. Below are three ways 3D printing can boost your bottom line in the future.

1. Speeding Spare Parts Fulfillment

It can cost organizations thousands, if not millions, of dollars every year to maintain an inventory of spare parts. It’s something we’ve accepted as the norm and lived with for decades. But anticipating parts demand can be challenging at best, and impossible at worst. And the more rare the part, the less likely a field service tech will have it on-demand for a customer.

Some of the highest value customers face the most challenging field service scenarios. Unfortunately, these customers typically wait the longest for resolution or parts replacement. 3D printing offers an alternative path. By reducing inventory of spare parts and investing in a 3D printing machine, field service organizations could print parts faster and more efficiently. This would save thousands of dollars in inventory, and reduce customer wait times. It would also offer the benefit of cutting shipping costs, since parts would get printed on-site, or close to the location of service.

Nike, Ford, General Electric and Boeing are all finding innovative ways to supplement their supply chain using 3D printing for spare parts and experimentation. A few years down the line, savvy field service pros will also re-imagine spare parts management using 3D printers.

2. Simplifying Tricky Field Logistics Scenarios

Parts replacement and logistics go hand-in-hand. But they are not one in the same. As other blogs have discussed, 3D printing from the back of a van may not be entirely realistic. Although, Amazon did recently file a patent for mobile 3D printing delivery trucks.
To simplify tricky field logistics scenarios, field service pros can set up on-demand printing stations in hard-to-reach or temporary field service job areas. The oil and gas, renewables, rail, and construction sectors all face the same challenge. They must provide service in challenging locations and environments. Instead of delivering hundreds of parts on the back of a truck, why not deliver a handful of 3D printing machines that could custom print on-demand near the site? This could significantly reduce shipping costs and meet real-time parts replacement demand. And you’d only be manufacturing the parts you’ll use.

3. Improving First-time Fix Rate

Parts replacement and field logistics both funnel into one bigger-picture metric: first-time fix rates.The fastest way to get paid is by resolving customer problems in a single visit. And it’s the only surefire way to keep customers happy. And we believe it’s also the most important field service management metric of all.

Aberdeen group recently uncovered a direct correlation between first-time fix rates and customer satisfaction in their report Fixing First Time Fix. According to Aberdeen, when first-time fix rates average above 80%, customer satisfaction hovers just under 90%. On the other hand, when first-time fix rates are below 50%, customer satisfaction dips below 50%.

But what does this have to do with 3D printing? Everything. The primary reason field techs visit a customer site twice is unavailability of parts. Inventory management is one of the most challenging aspects for field service organizations to tackle. With access to field-based or local 3D printing facilities, field techs could print specific parts on-demand. This could improve their first-time fix rate, which would also positively impact customer satisfaction ratings.

On the Horizon: Internet of Things & 3D Printing Collide

As a final note, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing could drastically change field service in the coming years.

Imagine this: first, we place machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors at customer sites that send messages when something breaks. These sensors would automatically send a message to fulfillment and dispatch when something breaks down. A 3D printer would queue up the replacement part automatically. Finally, the service tech delivers the part and fixes the problem without the customer ever having to lift a finger. Sound like science fiction? Just wait a few years, it might not be.

Looking for more tips, trends, and future field service technology advice? Check out the Technology section of Field Service Matters.

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Field Service Matters is about framing new conversations in field service management. We invite a variety of industry thought leaders and specialists to share their perspectives on various areas in workforce management, and explore the big ideas that power service excellence and innovation.

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