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Design for Disruption: Design for Maintenance in Space

Metal Parts Produced
Commercial Space
Medical Devices

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We’ve learned that it may be interesting to think of 3D printing in terms of design for maintenance. By optimizing maintenance, lengthening maintenance intervals, and making maintenance faster or more effective, we can save money. This kind of a design consideration could impact the overall costs of many products.

Together with thinking about other similar concepts, such as “design for installation“, we could make things that would be more efficient overall. In 3D printing, this would enable us to sell a part, such as a 3D printed window modifier, that may be more expensive but designed to save money in the long run. The business case for design-for-maintenance is especially strong in space, undersea, at sea, for the military, and in other high-value and critical applications. In this post, we’ll go through some scenarios to see how 3D printing and design-for-maintenance could make sense.

EVA helmet cam footage of an astronaut doing repairs. Image by Pat and the Sky

The most obvious case for saving money with high maintenance costs is in space. There, it could cost thousands to send up a single kilo, nearly every part is critical, people’s lives are directly at stake if failure happens, and everything is made in low production runs. In this case, we can see that, if we would 3D print a housing that is not a $1,000- but instead a $3,000-part, we could quickly recoup the costs.

An hour of crew time on the ISS is commercially sold for $130,000, while it was previously $17,500. In total, the International Space Station (ISS) costs between $3 to $4 billion a year. So, substituting a housing wherein four bolts are replaced in 40 minutes with one that can be replaced in 10 minutes can very quickly become advantageous.

For repairs outside of the station, the cost is astronomical. In this case, a six-hour space walk was needed to install a new solar panel. During the EVA, “one panel was not aligning on the bracket when unfolded“, and this caused delays. Given the planning and risks involved, any 3D printed design for maintenance upgrades here could make a lot of sense. Customized 3D printed tool organizers and toolbelts for that one single mission would even seem like a good idea. If the cost per hour or in human life is considerable, designing for faster maintenance is a no-brainer.

In the military, we’re seeing a growth of interest in 3D printing specifically for austere environments. Having printers overseas could mean that quick fixes can be propagated rapidly and parts can be received in days not in weeks. Given the high cost per kilo of getting things to forward-deployed soldiers, 3D printing really makes sense in these applications. Here, too, any maintenance burden would fall to combat troops and may see them become more exposed.

Reducing maintenance time via 3D printed solutions, even if this means 3D printing an item that allows something to function beyond its maintenance interval, can be very advantageous. This is especially true for maintenance that is a direct cause of a previously unknown theatre. Famously, the mighty Apache gunship was grounded often in the Gulf War because the fine desert sand penetrated air filters. Not only could this problem be fixed now with 3D printing, you could subsequently roll out a similar anti-dust solution to many more air intake solutions.

Undersea oil wells may produce 100,000 or 250,000 barrels of oil a day. Maintenance on them is cost-prohibitive, but essential. Undersea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or divers who sometimes live weeks in compression chambers are needed to do maintenance. Every hour of those divers’ or robots’ time is very valuable indeed. Here, redesigning something so that it can work a little faster or be checked a bit quicker could save a lot of time.

Commercial diving like this is also one of the world’s most dangerous professions, so anything that would make maintenance faster or safer would be very valuable financially and in human life. This includes: tool adaptors that would make it easier to take out and use a tool, special torque attachments that enable an exotic tool to be torqued, and unique tool belts for one job, and customized kits of replacement parts that float and allow access to components in their specified order. For things like undersea cable maintenance, we could easily use very highly customized tools to enable better and cheaper maintenance. Here, we could also think about upgrading old bolts with ones that are lighter, better, or faster, for example.

Other expensive professions where housings, assemblies, parts, and ports can be optimized through 3D printing could include firemen, line workers for electricity, doctors and nurses, pilots, and much much more. In all of these instances, the case for optimizing a part through 3D printing may quickly be made if it saves time for an expensive person in an expensive situation.

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