BT has bought and deployed an industrial 3D printer for its Magna Park distribution centre so it can provide key parts to engineers on site in an example of 3D printing starting to make its presence felt in business.
BT spent around £25,000 on the machine, a MJP2500+ from US firm 3D Systems and was delivered just before Christmas. It went into production in mid-January.
The firm is using it for a variety of uses, from printing parts for ‘just in time' delivery to ensuring it can provide engineers with items that may not be produced by manufacturers any more.
It also enables BT to test out new ideas that engineers can suggest and print a few items to trial in the field, rather than having to go through a full manufacturing process.
Andy Fielden, CIO BT Supply Chain and Cables, said all this has the potentially to radically transform how it can operate.
"It allows us to provide the stock items at the point of use without having to order, store and distribute the item - thus significantly reducing cost and time to market," he said in a statement sent to V3.
"Recent innovations in this technology and cost reductions in the printers have now made it viable for BT to print low volume items for our internal engineers. It also allows us to easily prototype and test new ideas, thus releasing the potential of our people."
The initiative to embrace 3D printing started last year as part of a move from staff at BT's Adastral Park research centre to evaluate the technology with its engineering workforce as BT Lead Consultant Iain Monteath explained to V3.
"We started to promote this [3D printing] around the business and the supply chain team seized on because even though the technology is in its early days they saw it as having capabilities that can fundamentally change our business."
He said the first example of this came when an engineer suggested printing plastic ‘needles' for threading cable at the cabinet. Using a 3D printing - a more basic model in its research labs [shown below] - BT was able to print a batch of 20 to trial with engineers.
Image showing items 3D printed by BT during tests. The long 'tear drops' in the middle left at the needles designed by a BT engineer
"If we wanted to put this into production through the normal processes it would cost maybe £15,000, so for a spend of around £25,000 to be able to create, make and test anything we want, is very beneficial," added Monteath.
To help further understand how it could use 3D printing the supply chain team seconded a BT Openreach engineer who had built her own 3D printer and was already raising the potential of 3D printing within the business.
"We had a meeting with the chief engineer at BT and he had also been contacted by this engineer who said we should be exploring 3D printings potential. So we started to work with her to understand what we could do with the technology. She is now working for supply chain on this full time, which is a great story."
Monteath added that with 3D printing technology continuing to improve and come down in cost it could well be that more advanced forms of the technology become part of its operations.
"There are models that let you print flexible and solid parts in one, so that really starts to change the game because you can print an entire item in one go," he said, adding that this could effectively remove the need for full manufacturing of some certain.
Of course, if an item was needed in the thousands it would likely still be made using traditional processes given the costs of doing so with 3D printers.
However, the benefits BT is already deriving from 3D printing underlines the potential for the technology to start moving from high-end projects into more everyday areas of business, as Monteath notes.
"3D printing can seem like a technology enjoyed by elite organisations like advanced healthcare, F1 teams or the military. Such organisations normally associated with huge budgets, however, I think more companies will start to realise the benefits that the technology can have whatever their size."
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