“Technological advances now allow for 3D printing – producing a 3D object by printing layer after layer until the unit is complete. Also called additive manufacturing, the process has been used for rapid prototyping. As the cost of 3D printing declines, there is a substantial interest for 3D printing of consumer goods by consumers. This article explores the implications for the garage door industry.
A recent online posting highlighted the potential use of 3D printing that could impact the garage door industry. The title said it all: “3D Printing Would Obviate Waiting for the Repairman.” The story focused on a broken clip on a residential garage door. The clip was to hold the garage door opener arm to the top of the top sectional door section.
The actual clip was repaired properly by a local door company, and the author notes: “Now it’s as good as new. We can now put our cars in the garage, and all is right with the world.”
The issue is not the repair itself. Instead the issue focused on the time spent waiting for the repair technician: “Today I worked from home so _____ Garage Doors could repair our door… Having to work from home to greet the repairman made me long for a 3D printer. Many of these devices print using ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic. Like just a normal printer puts the ink on the paper to form the correct letters, 3D printers print by laying down a very thin layer of goop, and an ultraviolet light immediately passes over the material and cures it. The process is repeated over and over until the desired item has been built up one layer at a time. Unlike a lathe which strips material away from a block to reveal the desired shape trapped inside, this type of 3D printing is a additive process. Although 3D printers typically use ABS plastic, there are some that can print using titanium, aluminum, or cement. The alternative-material devices use lasers to cure metallic powder into solid metal. There’s a famous song “If I had a hammer…” Well if I had a 3D printer that printed titanium, I could have printed my replacement part and spent a normal day at the office.” (http://labs.blogs.com/)
So the real issue for door professionals is to understand the real potential for 3D printers and their impact on the garage door industry. Will replacement parts be that easy to produce?
3D Printing of Consumer Products
The idea of using 3D printing to create consumer products is not unprecedented. Houzz.com, for example, has highlighted that 3D printing costs and accessibility now allow for mass customization of home decoration pieces. Similarly, geekboy.com has noted that homeowners are now able to produce custom art through the use of 3D printers – speaking directly to the garage door opener problem that started this article.
While both houzz.com and geekboy.com focus on using 3D printing technology to produce unique items that enhance a home’s decor, the real impact of 3D printing is in its ability to replicate previously produced items. 3D printing is ideal for producing gears, clips, casing and other small components that are typically made of plastic. As the technology progresses, it allows for the use of metals and plastic-metal combinations.
Popular Mechanics, for example, has highlighted how late-night comedian Jay Leno has used 3D printers to produce replacement parts for his fleet of vintage cars. He essentially produces difficult/impossible parts to source for vehicles dating back to the early 1900’s. He has a faulty or rusty old part….he prints a new replacement part.
Closer to home, a recent YouTube video shows how 3D printing is used to produce an unspecified garage door opener gear (http://youtu.be/S6OWmQmCfOQ). While the video does not give enough detail of the process or address the cost or time required to produce the part, it does demonstrate that people are trying to adapt 3D technology to the door industry.
The Next 10 Years
So the 3D technology exists, and there is evidence that there are at least a few parts in the garage door industry that lend themselves to 3D printing. That, of itself, does not mean that it will be financially viable to use 3D printing to produce garage door hardware or opener parts.
Having said that, once the technology and a market demand exists, costs tend to come down rapidly. It’s known as Wright’s Law – production costs decline as a function of overall production. So the first units of any successful technology will be expensive, but if there is adequate demand, production costs will decline as the demand is met through broader production efforts. This declining cost structure will result in additional demand.
This is generally supported by research highlighted by DailyTech.com. Michigan Technology University researcher Joshua Pearce noted that consumers, faced with high replacement part costs and rapidly declining 3D printer costs, tend to opt for the ability to self-produce replacement parts.
“Pearce said the fact that prices are starting to come down for 3D printers, and the fact that it no longer requires an engineer to figure out how to use one, will make 3D printers more ubiquitous in the home in the coming years.” (www.dailytech.com)
But more insightful, perhaps, are the comments posted by readers. This is a technical online forum, so the comments tend to be made by well-informed individuals. Responding to an initial comment that ended in “I can’t see this taking off,” the following two comments are worth considering:
Comment 1: “The thing to consider is how long will it take you to model all these replacement parts? You have to have very precise measurements, which isn’t going to be easy for most people. When the day comes where manufacturers give you access to replacement part 3D files, then it will be a lot easier. Or, of course, when entire products can be printed with plans.”
Response: “No doubt manufacturers will charge you to use their plans. Maintaining adequate stock and distribution of spare parts for an acceptable prices is a challenge for manufacturers. if they could just charge you to let you do all the work yourself? They’d be all over that.”
But these comments focus on 3D printers only being in the hands of average consumers. What if, instead, the next stage of use of the 3D technology was at the dealer level? This would allow a company to make a strategic decision to by the technology to replicate difficult to source parts.
In many ways, this would simplify the issue. Garage door dealers would need to have access to manufacturers’ drawings. They would cover the cost of the technology over multiple consumers.
But there are some issues with the 3D printing of replacement parts, especially in the garage door industry. Consider the garage door problem noted at the start of this article. It is simple enough…only a clip was needed.
But how old was the garage door opener? Would you want to provide the part needed to fix an opener from, say, 1990? Would providing the part’s specs so that a consumer would 3D print their own part be any different legally from providing the actual part?
If the consumer printed the part, what would be the impact on warranties? Would that change if the 3D print instructions were provided by the original manufacturer?
The developments in 3D printing technology present interesting opportunities for the garage door industry. The ability to instantly replicate specific parts is clearly a benefit, but there are many questions that need to be answered before broad acceptance takes place.
But these concerns should not stop garage door professionals from planning for the implications of 3D printing. The technology is robust. The potential uses are broad. Wright’s Law predicts that the price will dramatically decline.”
– The Garage Door News – September 2013 – Volume 22/Issue 9