Maintenance, repairs and overhaul is a market segment which offers enormous opportunities when we combine it with current technological advancements. The number of existing products is vastly greater than the number of new products sold, and with growing ecological awareness, resource scarcity, the fragility of consumerism in the face of a growing sense of individual sovereignty and mutualism, and the ongoing global crisis, repairs and uplifting will surge even in the markets dominated by companies that model after a sales-oriented pipeline. Reclaiming maintenance and wrapping it in a collective of positive feedback cycles allows for continuous improvement and for the end client a welcome atmosphere of ongoing commitment.
3D-Printing is the most eye-catching aspect of the gradual automation of manufacturing. Throughout the last decades technical improvements and market forces have joined to gradually zero in on general purpose machines and tools. This is opening an alley in personalized manufacturing, small-series production as well as maintenance. In fact, combining the advances in nanotechnology, smart materials, handheld 3D scanners combined with digital holography or using a PDA for a 3D ultrasonographic echoscope, and augmented reality for interactive manuals or expert guidance, it is foreseen that maintenance, repairs and overhaul are no longer the forgotten phase in a product’s lifecycle but will become a vibrant part of the economy. During more than 20 years 3D-Printing technologies have been maturing in the proto-typing world, but have started encompassing a much wider range of possible materials and techniques, including nano-technology for circuits and stem cells for organ printing. The idea of printing is game changing, as it implies general purpose manufacturing processes, manufacturing that can ‘print’ just about anything. The most promising use a combination of either lasers or electron beams, and flexible ways of depositing/shaping the core materials, like layering of powders or unrolling wire feedstock or even reusing inkjet technologies is the most flexible. In fact the most versatile 3D-Printing manufacturing means use light beams, lightning beams and matter beams. Not only that, another increasingly versatile technique in the creation of meta-materials is the use of sound beams, to create phonons, sound packets which act as particles or placeholders for other particles. Combining these beams can create an object from the ground up.
Several megatrends are likely to change the manufacturing processes even more, wireless networking, sensors and mixing software architecture with robotics. By modularizing manufacturing tools themselves, and replacing electro-mechanical parts by some software running on a computer inside a network, this allows for large cost-reductions along with increased flexibility. Due to market forces stimulating ‘economies of scope’ the manufacturing process itself as well as the resulting goods will consequently experience another important trend, the commoditization of parts so to increase their degree of interchangeability. In particular for embedded devices, the use of ‘field-programmable’ features has boosted, allowing simple software updates instead of elaborate tinkering on hardware components. Having such a ‘portfolio’ of fungible mass-produced parts available will greatly assists the design process, and will also work in parallel with increasing specialization due to a shift towards more creativity at the functional and aesthetic design end. To use Lego as an example for the power of interchangeability through standardization, six two-by-four bricks can be combined in 915,103,765 ways.
Offloading much of the ‘brains’ into the network reduces physical limitations while allowing for updates and improvements without having to replace the machinery. This open design process will also include some smart technologies, integration options for sensor technologies, ‘smart’ contact surfaces, smart circuitry, universal and programmable connection making, glueless connections, and even making parts in such a way that they already address the assembly and disassembly processes.
It is only a matter of time before other universal solutions come available on the market, such as nanofiber duct tape or amorphous glassy carbon spray-on coating and allow for reparation means that actually improve the original product.
3D-Printing service stations will appear, with flexible multi-purpose factory halls, hosting a range of general purpose machines which dynamically cooperate in the form of a decentralized robot. Like a 21st century version of the Copy Shop these service stations are best located near distribution centers or postal services, aimed to provide a small region with advanced manufacturing capabilities. The 3D-Printing revolution and the rise of such service stations are events which are largely inevitable. Many opportunities lie in capturing and facilitating the market shifts this will cause, as well as supporting this with a technologically mature solution that can evolve alongside this new market..