Is 3D printing the ultimate postponement? – Part one

Imagine the first habitable base on mars. Your challenge is to pack the first cargo spaceship with all the necessary for the staff to face all maintenance issues, until the next cargo spaceship can lift up, say three months later.

Chances are you’ll include a 3D printer and enough of printer’s raw material, simply because it would be the most efficient way to provide many things needed despite tremendous logistics constraints.

Now quit outer space and consider a tanker, an aircraft carrier or container ship amidst the ocean. In some aspects, these vessels share common traits with our base on mars:

  • storage space for spare parts, raw material and machines for maintenance purpose is scarce
  • they are far from everything, can be supplied only after some delay
  • supplying them is not without some risk (weather, enemies, etc.)
  • supplying them is not only risky but comes at (very) high cost

In these cases too, 3D printing is a good option to consider as printing what is needed at the very moment it is needed is the optimum solution and ultimate postponement.

What is postponement?

In manufacturing and supply chain operations, postponement means delaying the completion of a product or packaging products until a signal assigns specific customer or destination. This is useful when many variants would lead to possible misallocation if the completion would be based on forecasts.

Put simpler, postponement delays a decision until what is expected is clearly specified. The reason is most of transformation step in a process modify the product in such manner that returning to previous state is impossible.

Example: if you cut a piece of fabric to make a handkerchief, it cannot be returned to a piece of fabric for a trousers’ leg. (except it was a huge handkerchief or tiny trousers)

Materials usually lose flexibility along the transformation process. Once transformed there is no stepping back.

Postponement is used to delay the completion or manufacturing until a differentiation point from which the item loses its flexibility (e.g. pack in white box and add customized label latter).

Because postponement and later completion is no realistic option for our vessels or space base, they must embark spare parts for all possible cases, but under constraint of volume and in some cases weight.

The embarked mix is a set of items based on forecasts and tradeoffs about what could possibly happen and what is most likely needed, still carrying the frightening risk that what will really be needed will not be included in the cargo.

Printing at will

Now if you can trade the same finite volume and mass of many different spare parts selected through complicated statistical computation for a 3D printer and raw printer material, the risk drops to almost none as any required part (as long as material is suitable) can be printed when required, and even customized to some unexpected specification change.

This is why NASA, the navy or some private companies consider to embark 3D printers and train staff in order for the unit to be independent from its supply base for a longer period.


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