The IoT Will Reinvent Replacement Parts Industry

Of all the Internet of Things’ revolutionary impacts on industry, perhaps none will be as dramatic as on replacement parts, where it will team with 3-D printing to reduce service time, inventory and costs.

I came to that realization circuitously, upon noticing Warren Buffett’s blockbuster purchase of Precision Castparts, the major precision parts supplier to the aeronautics industry.  Having read last year about yet another breakthrough innovation by Elon Musk, i.e., the first totally 3-D printed rocket engines, I was curious to see what Precision was doing in that area.  Unless my search of their website was flawed, the answer is zip, and that suggests to me that Buffett, who famously once said he doesn’t invest in technology because he doesn’t understand it, may have just bought …. a rather large dinosaur.

I noticed that one of Precision’s biggest customers is GE, which not only is using 3-D jet fuel nozzles on its engines but also ran a high-profile contest to design a 3-D printed engine mount that was open to you, me and the kids trying out the new 3-D printer at our little town’s library (note to Mr. Buffett: might be good to schedule a sit-down with Jeff Immelt before one of your biggest customers takes things in-house). As I’ve written before, not only is GE a world leader in the IoT and 3-D printing, but also in my third magic bullet, nanotech: put all three together, and you’re really talking revolution!

OK, I know 3-D printing is sloow (in its current state), so it’s unlikely to replace traditional assembly lines at places such as Precision Castparts for large volumes of parts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t rapidly replace them in the replacement parts area.  I talked to a friend several years ago whose biz consists of being a broker between power plants that need replacement parts yesterday and others with an excess on hand, and couldn’t help thinking his days were numbered, because it was predicated on obsolete technology — and thinking.

Think of how the combined strengths of the IoT and 3-D printing can help a wide range of industries get replacement parts when and where they need them, and at potentially lower cost:

  • sensors in IoT-enabled devices will give advance notice of issues such as metal fatigue, so that repairs can be done sooner (“predictive maintenance“), with less disruption to normal routine, cheaper and reducing the chance of catastrophic failure.
  • because data can be shared on a real-time by not only your entire workforce, but also your supply chain, you can automate ordering of replacement parts.
  • perhaps most important, instead of a supplier having to maintain a huge inventory of replacement parts on the possibility they may be needed, they can instead be produced only when needed, or at least with a limited inventory (such as replacing a part in inventory as one is ordered). This may lead to “re-shoring” of jobs, because you will no longer have to deal with a supplier on the other side of the globe: it might be in the next town, and the part could be delivered as soon as printed, saving both delay and money.
  • your company may have your own printer, and you will simply pay the OEM for the digital file to print a part in-house, rather than having to deal with shipping, etc.

And, as I mentioned in the  earlier post about GE’s leadership in this area, there are other benefits as well:

  • “We’ll no longer do subtractive processes, where a rough item is progressively refined until it is usable.  Instead, products will be built atom-by-atom, in additive processes where they will emerge exactly in the form they’re sold.
  • “Products will increasingly be customized to the customer’s exact specifications. The products will be further fine-tuned based on a constant flow of data from the field about how customers actually use them.”

Sooo, Mr. Buffett, it’s time that you come to terms with 21-st century technology or Berkshire Hathaway’s financial slide may continue.


Is GE the future of manufacturing? IoT + nanotech + 3D-printing

The specific impetus for this post was an article in The Boston Globe about heart stents that fit perfectly because they’re 3-D printed individuallly for each patient.

GE jet engine 3-D-printed fuel nozzle

That prompted me to think of how manufacturing may change when three of my favorite technologies — nanotech, 3-D printing and the Internet of Things — are fully mature and synergies begin (as I’m sure they will) to emerge between the three.

I’m convinced we’ll see an unprecedented combination of:

  • waste elimination: we’ll no longer do subtractive processes, where a rough item is progressively refined until it is usable.  Instead, products will be built atom-by-atom, in additive processes where they will emerge exactly in the form they’re sold.
  • as with the stents, products will increasingly be customized to the customer’s exact specifications.
  • the products will be further fine-tuned based on a constant flow of data from the field about how customers actually use them.

Guess what?  The same company is in on the cutting edge of all three: General Electric (no, I’m not on their payroll, despite all my fawning attention to them!):

  • Their Industrial Internet IoT initiative is resulting in dramatic changes to their products, with built-in sensors that relay data constantly to GE and the customer about the product’s current status, allowing predictive maintenance practices that cuts repair costs, optimizing the device’s performance for more economical operations, and even allowing GE to switch from selling products to leasing them, with the lease price determined dynamically using factors such as how many hours the products are actually used.  Not only that, but they practice what they preach, with 10,000 sensors on the assembly line at their Durathon battery plant in Schenectady, plus sensors in the batteries themselves, allowing managers to roam the plant with an iPad to get instant readings on the assembly line’s real-time operation, to fine-tune the processes, and to be able to spot defective batteries while they are still in production, so that 100% of the batteries shipped will work.
    They’re also able to push products out the door more rapidly and updating them quicker based on the huge volumes of data they gather from sensors built into the products: “… G.E. is adopting practices like releasing stripped-down products quickly, monitoring usage and rapidly changing designs depending on how things are used by customers. These approaches follow the ‘lean start-up’ style at many software-intensive Internet companies. “’We’re getting these offerings done in three, six, nine months,’ he [William Ruh] said. ‘It used to take three years.’”
  • They’ve made a major commitment to 3-D printing, with 100,000 3-D printed parts scheduled to be built into their precision LEAP jet engines — a big deal, since there’s not a great deal of fault tolerance in something that may plunge to the earth if it malfunctions! As Bloomberg reported, “The finished product is stronger and lighter than those made on the assembly line and can withstand the extreme temperatures (up to 2,400F) inside an engine.”  They’re making major investments to boost the 3-D printers’ capacity and speed.  Oh, and did I mention their precedent-setting contest to crowd-source the invention of a 3-D printed engine mount?
  • They’re also partnering with New York State on perhaps the most visionary technology of all, nanotech, which manipulates materials on the molecular level. GE will focus on cheap silicon carbide wafers, which beat silicon chips in terms of efficiency and power, leading to smaller and lighter devices.

GE is the only member of the original Dow-Jones Index (in 1884) that still exists. As I’ve said before, I’m astounded that they not only get it about IoT technology, but also the new management practices such as sharing data that will be required to fully capitalize on it.

Thomas A. Edison is alive and well!