Obsolescent no more

Read an article in the Economist’s Quarterly Technology section this week on 3D printers. There was mention of one company who was having problems keeping their MD-80 jets flying because of leaking toilets. It turned out that a plastic part needed to be replaced but as the plane had reached end-of-service the parts were no longer available. Enter the 3D printer and aero-space grade plastic and now the planes are flying again.

The plague of obsolescence

When I worked at a storage vendor we often had problems parts going end-of-life. These were parts were no longer being manufactured and we would have to buy up a bunch of them in order to keep products in the field. Now most of these obsolete parts were electronic, but the problems were still the same.

Over time, manufacturing volumes for some parts were just not worth it anymore. At that point, manufacturers would call it end-of-life and if your system depended on it, you either bought enough to last until your system went end-of-life or you re-designed your system to eliminate the obsolete part.  Most of the time it was a little of both approaches, with a race to see if you would run out of parts before the new design was deployed in the field.

3D printers save the day

Maybe with 3D printers that could print electronics, metal, ceramics and plastics these issues would go away. There are a few preliminary things that need to be done in order for all this to work.

  1. Part manufacturers need to provide a CAD drawing of any and all parts that go end-of-life.
  2. Component manufacturers need to provide detailed CAD drawings of all parts that go into their components that are going end-of-life or end-of-service.
  3. System manufacturers need to provide detailed CAD drawings of all components and parts that go into their systems that are going end-of-life or end-of-service.
  4. Bicycle, automobile, railway, aircraft, tractor, etc., designers need to provide detailed CAD drawings of all the parts, components and assemblies that go into their vehicles that are going end-of-life or end-of-service.

I could go on but you get the picture. With proper CAD drawings and appropriate 3D printers there should never be another problem with end-of-life mechanical or optical parts.

How to get manufacturers to go along?

There would need to be some sort of agreement on the CAD format for such archive information. And there would need to be some teeth behind the proposal to get manufacturers and vendors to provide this information, say from some large 3-letter organization that could start the ball rolling.

They would need to begin demanding as part of all new contracts for equipment purchases that detailed CAD information be put in escrow and made available to them when the systems, components and parts go end-of-life or end-of-service. Of course the system vendors and component manufacturers might want to get ahead of this curve and start demanding this of all their suppliers in anticipation of such.

The escrowed CAD information could easily be licensed to certain customers rather than just given away for free. Possibly this could be provided to independent service organizations as well to service the equipment long after the product is end-of-life and out-of-service.

The problem is that most system vendors and parts manufacturers would rather their customers purchase their more current parts and systems as that’s where they make most of their revenue, not servicing older equipment. But if part, component and system suppliers can provide enough of a benefit with the newer equipment this should just enable other customers that couldn’t afford the new equipment to buy the older stuff.

Something similar has to be done with software code than goes into these systems. The source code needs to to be put in escrow just like the CAD drawings. The nice thing about software is its easier to manufacture as long as you have compatible build tools.  Maybe the source code for the tools needs to be escrowed too.

What about electronics?

There are some limitations given today’s 3D printers. They currently seem much better at printing mechanical parts rather than electronic ones. But the technology is advancing rapidly. The Economist article indicated that there was a company Optomec based in Albuquerque, New Mexico which can print electronics with features as small as 10 microns across. Now todays chip technology is around 20 nm or so, which means they are off by a couple of orders of magnitude.

But we are talking about parts obsolescence. While 20nm electronic 3D printing might be 20 or more years away, it’s not outside the realm of possibility and of course in 20 years from now the electronics (if we keep on Moore’s curve) could be over 1000X smaller than 20nm. So there may be a significant gap for a while yet, at least until Moore’s curve starts slowing down.

But maybe there’s another solution to the electronics parts obsolescence. If manufacuturers were required to supply a detailed gate layout or other electrical design documentation for all electronic parts then perhaps, some ingenious hardware engineer could implement the parts in FPGAs or something similar. Now it seems to me that ASICs today should be able to be converted to FPGAs available 5-10 years down the line.  If this wouldn’t work, maybe some foundry could take the designs and fabricate them. 5 year old electronic technology should be easy to make.  It might be costly at small volumes but it should work.

Analog parts are another matter and I am no hardware engineer so have no idea what proper documentation for these electronics would be. Certainly, there is some standard that could be used, and 5 year old analog parts ought to be easy to make too.

But mechanical and electronics aren’t the only parts today

That leaves a couple of wide areas of materials that are used in every day systems such as magnetic media, fabrics, and other meta-materials that are fabricated with special technologies to perform differently. I suppose some chemical formula and process description might suffice to describe these items and maybe someday 3D printers could take these items on as well.

I am sure missing something.  Seems like cables should be easy just a combination of metal and plastic and the connectors should be more of the same only in a different configurations. I assume that 3D printers should have no problem with optics, but that may be naiveté on my part.

Maybe this will take some time to work it’s way through the parts, component, and system suppliers before it can reach reality. Maybe the 3D printers aren’t up to creating all these parts today. But as 3D printing technology matures there will surely come a point in time where we will see the end of obsolescence, end-of-life and end-of-service.


Picture Credits: Makerbot Industries – Replicator 2 – 3D-printer 04
Creative Tools

Information commerce – part 2

3d personal printer by juhansonin (cc) (from Flickr)
3d personal printer by juhansonin (cc) (from Flickr)

I wrote a post a while back about how interplanetary commerce could be stimulated through the use of information commerce (see my Information based inter-planetary commerce post).  Last week I saw an article in the Economist magazine that discussed new 3D-printers used to create products with just the design information needed to describe a part or product.  Although this is only one type of information commerce, cultivating such capabilities can be one step to the future information commerce I envisioned.

3D Printers Today

3D printers grew up from the 2D inkjet printers of last century.  It turns out if 2D printers can precisely spray ink on a surface it stands to reason that similar technology could potentially build up a 3D structure one plane at a time.  After each layer is created, a laser, infrared light or some other technique is used to set the material into it’s proper form and then the part is incrementally lowered so that the next layer can be created.

Such devices use a form of additive manufacturing which adds material to the exact design specifications necessary to create one part. In contrast, normal part manufacturing activities such as those using a lathe are subtractive manufacturing activities, i.e., they take a block of material and chip away anything that doesn’t belong in the final part design.

3D printers started out making cheap, short-life plastic parts but recently, using titanium oxide powders, have been used to create extremely long lived, metal aircraft parts and nowadays can create any short- or long-lived plastic part imaginable.  A few limitations persist, namely, the size of the printer determines the size of the part or product and 3D printers that can create multi-material parts are fairly limited.

Another problem is the economics of 3D printing of parts, both in time and cost.  Volume production, using subtractive manufacturing of parts is probably still a viable alternative, i.e., if you need to manufacture 1000 or more of the same part, it probably still makes sense to use standard manufacturing techniques.   However, the boundary as to where it makes economic sense to 3D print a part or whether to use a lathe to manufacture a part is gradually moving upward.  Moreover, as more multi-material capable 3D printers start coming online, the economics of volume product manufacturing (not just a single part) will cause a sea change in product construction.

Information based, intra-planetary commerce

The Economist article discussed some implications of sophisticated 3D printers available in the near future.  Specifically, with 3D printers coming soon, manufacturing can now be done locally rather than having to ship parts and products from one country to another.  Using 3D printers all one needed to do was to transmit the product design to wherever it needs to be produced and sold.  They believed this would eliminate most cost advantages available today for low-wage countries that manufacturing parts and products.

The other implication that comes with newer 3D printers is that product customization is now much easier to do.  I envision clothing, furnishing, and other goods that can be literally tailor made for an individual with the proper use of design rule checking CAD software together with local, sophisicated 3D printers.  How Joe Consumer, fires up a CAD program and tailors their product is another matter.  But with 3D printers coming online, sophisticated, CAD knowledgeable users could almost do this today.


In the end, the information needed to create a part or a product will be the key intellectual property.  It’s already been happening for years now but the dawn of 3D printers will accelerate this trend even more.

Also, 3D printers will expand information commerce, joining the already present, information activities provided by the finance, research/science, media, and other information purveyors around the planet today.  Anything that makes information more a part of everyday commerce can be beneficial, whenever we ultimately begin to move off this world to the next planet – let alone when I want to move to Tahitti…