A recent trip to the waste and recycling centre served as a reminder that a huge number of items are thrown away for want of a spare part.
Vacuum cleaners in need of a handle; a piece of furniture in need of a new joint; a radio-controlled car in need of a new wheel: mass production has made finished products cheaper to buy but it also means that when their bespoke, sometimes complex parts break, the entire products are often destined to be thrown away. Any replacement product is likely to be similarly ‘disposable’.
Just as many people have been shocked to discover that it costs less to buy a new printer than to buy a new set of print cartridges (notwithstanding the fact that the cartridges in the new printer may contain less ink than the replacement cartridges), the lack of available spare parts for many of everyday items is a factor in the world’s growing amounts of waste.
Perhaps 3D printing can help to reverse this trend.
3D printing is big news at the moment, and it’s rapidly moving further into the industrial mainstream.
MINI is using 3D printing to create bespoke decorative parts, allowing customers to personalise their cars to a higher degree than was previously possible. Bugatti is using the technology to create brake calipers that are lighter and stronger.
Divergent 3D says it will ‘revolutionise car manufacturing through 3D printing’. And makers of bike frames are using 3D-printed lugs to produce frames with exactly the angles and ride characteristics that individual customers want.
Yet one of the biggest areas of potential for 3D printing is in the role of providing replacement parts.
It’s hard to predict exactly what demand there will be for replacement parts – not to mention when, or where, this demand will occur.
Additionally, demand is often suppressed because the cost of distributing, storing and retailing spare parts would be unreasonably high.
However, if manufacturers were to make patterns and material specifications available, more parts could be produced locally, to order, when required. Companies in the classic car sector are already offering previously unavailable replacement parts for long-out-of-production vehicles.
By licensing the specifications, manufacturers could draw additional revenue – potentially for many years – while governments could insist that the specifications are made available, to help realise the environmental benefits.
Local printing would also mean less packaging, as well as vastly reduced transportation and storage requirements.
Customers could select 3D printing vendors based on criteria other than price and convenience – perhaps prioritising those that use recycled plastic or bioplastics from sustainable sources.