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The Disruptive impact of a 3D Printed Replacement Part on the F-35 and Beyond.

Posted on Aug 21, 2018 by Cullen Hikene

Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion 31 (CLB-31) in Carderock, Maryland, fabricated a 3D printed replacement part that saved them $70,000 over going back to the original equipment manufacturer. It is a remarkable story and one that really illustrates the disruptive impact of 3D printed replacement parts on manufacturing as we know it. Part of the marines’ landing gear door for their F-35 was damaged. To replace the door would cost $70,000. Instead, the Marines 3D printed a custom part to replace the damaged portion, at a cost of about 9 cents for PETG filament. There are a few things worth commenting on in this story, and we’ll discuss them here.

How Far 3D Printing has Come in the Last Few Years

The first comment is to briefly pay some quick respect to is how remarkably far 3D printing has come in the last few years. That these soldiers were able to custom-design a part to address their need and then print a sufficiently durable part on-demand with a desktop printer is pretty remarkable. Desktop machines were in their nascency five years ago, struggling to deliver a reliable print in PLA—arguably the most friendly material to process out there. Now they are viably processing more durable materials such as PETG.

How Much You Can Save With 3D Printed Replacement Part

The second thing is to discuss the jaw-dropping savings these marines achieved with their 3D printed replacement part. The U.S. Marines said these parts cost them just 9 cents to make. Now this number bears a bit of reconciling before we can take it at face value.

First, there’s some question of whether machine time is considered in this figure. While these soldiers were using a desktop printer, the machine they would use would need to have a few capabilities beyond your bargain-basement machine to process PETG material effectively. So figure there are at least a few thousand dollars of machine investment here. If you’ve got a three-year life on the machine, that’s still a few bucks a day to own the device. So unless this part is tiny enough that it’s printed in a few minutes, it’s not likely included in the figure. Even if we are to assume a daylong print, that’s still just a few extra dollars of cost and still impressive!

Second, the big cost that certainly isn’t included in the 9 cent figure is the time, energy, and knowledge of the marines that made the part. Obviously, these are paid, professional soldiers and their reputation for the engineering expertise and creativity to come up with fixes in the field is world-renowned. If you were to come to 3Diligent or any other private-sector service provider, that sort of know-how is something we must charge for in order to run a business. On top of that is whatever expenses were tied up in the setup and post-processing of this 3D printed replacement part to get it ready for action.

Even if we are to assume that 9 cents is just the cost of material and we add in the above assumptions to cover the other major input costs, it’s still a significant price difference between the OEM spare part and the 3D printed replacement part. Let’s assume that this 3D printed replacement part was 1/1000th of the total mass of the part, that would bring the cost of material up to just $900. Assuming the marines were dedicated to developing this part over the course of a whole 40-hour workweek, even if we estimate their time at a hundred bucks an hour you’re still only looking at an incremental $4,000 of cost. So basically we’re looking at a $5,000 part instead of a $70,000 OEM replacement—around $65,000 in savings. Just looking at these numbers, it’s no wonder 3D printed replacement parts are getting attention and gaining traction.

How Disruptive 3D Printing Can Be to the Existing Manufacturing Paradigm

Another thing that needs to be considered here is what this does to the entire manufacturing paradigm. When you can suddenly address a problem for less than 1/10th of the cost, something has to give. While we might like to think this is just a case of an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) price gouging Uncle Sam for our tax dollars, I don’t think that’s the reality when you dig deeper. Since the impact is nothing short of disruptive to the status quo, let’s speak to the OEM pricing model.

Due to regulations and oversight, the OEM of that part is subjected to rigorous FAA certification before it is deemed flight-ready. The OEM of the door most certainly went through an extensive R&D cycle to develop the door design and then engaged in the fabrication of various prototypes to determine the right design. They built custom tools or molds for the mass production of those parts and fabricated them. From there, they went through a rigorous qualification process internally and a certification process with the FAA to deem the parts were airworthy. All of that took a lot of time from highly paid engineers and the tooling costs were likely in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The costs were likely significant enough that I’d venture to guess the first parts delivered were delivered at very slim margins, bordering on break even. Rather than collect their profit upfront, the OEM likely was banking on future production runs or spare part orders to bring profitability to the program. In other words, the $70,000 part price was arrived at not because it’s a cost-plus price of the item but because that’s what the price needs to be when accounting for low margins on the original parts to get the program to a reasonable level of profitability.

Now, this isn’t really to say boo hoo for the OEM. Aerospace has been in the 3D printing game the longest, so the strong likelihood is the OEM  has experimented extensively with 3D printing and was well aware of the potential risks utilizing such a revenue model might have for their business. At the very least, they were more equipped to anticipate the impact of 3D printed replacement parts blowing up the $70K order they were expecting than a lot of small and medium businesses would be. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the rise of functional 3D printing for replacement parts is going to have a fundamental impact on the way companies need to consider how to charge for their parts—both production and spares. That will only become more pronounced as marines like the ones that develop this 9-cent fix and other talented engineers like them start filling the ranks of the private sector.

Once the design thinking unique to 3D printing is pervasive across the broader market, there is no telling how far the old standards for getting production and aftermarket parts fabricated and paid for will change.

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