Back in 2016 it was announced that Mercedes-Benz was taking a novel approach to the issue of how to manufacture and distribute parts for older trucks which were no longer common enough to justify the mass production of spares. By using 3D-printing technology, it was possible to fashion components at remote sites rather than having to build them centrally and ship them out to customers.
The problem with this scheme in the short term was that it was only workable when plastic parts were required, somewhat limiting the options for repair and replacement. But earlier this month it announced that it had now optimised the ability to print out parts using metal, according to Digital Trends.
The first part to undergo this treatment was relatively small in size – the cover for a thermostat on an ageing Unimog truck. But the long-term goal is to make it possible to print off almost any metal component for HGVs, even if they have otherwise been out of production for years.
Shorter waits for parts.
This is great news for people who want to buy used trucks, because they will no longer have to wait for months for an official spare to arrive or to spend hours searching for a part at a scrap yard. It is also safe to assume that if Mercedes-Benz proves that this technology is viable, other truck manufacturers will jump on the bandwagon.
The same principles used to print plastic parts are at work in the metal equivalent of the process. Small amounts of aluminium, powdered and mixed with silicone, are deposited in layers, with a computer controlling everything and a laser being applied to provide the heat that fuses the particles together.
Mercedes-Benz’s parent firm Daimler, which is responsible for giving this project the go-ahead, also argues that the resultant alloy parts that are printed should be able to perform just as well as their die-cast counterparts.
From a cost perspective, Daimler points out that it will be much more affordable for it to deal with limited production runs, as it only needs to print as many parts are required. A lot of warehouse space will be freed up by this approach.
The future of 3D printing.
In the long term it would be ideal for garages across the world to have their own metal 3D-printing capabilities so that parts can be constructed on-site in a matter of hours. The flexibility of this technology is such that as long as the right files are available, any truck of any age should be serviceable.
So far 3D printing has only been used in specialised situations across the auto industry, and it seems unlikely that it will replace traditional manufacturing techniques in the near future. But for tackling the complications involved in sourcing spare parts for older HGVs, Mercedes-Benz could be on the right track and may end up a market leader in this respect.
The speed and convenience of modern technology will continue to change the industry for the better – in this case by improving the experience of owning a second-hand truck.