With dumpsters upon dumpsters absolutely riddled with plastic parts across the nation, Derek Kramer had to take a long, hard look at what Service King could do to eliminate waste and reduce repair costs.
The answer, as it turns out, was 3-D printing.
“We had these parts we couldn’t repair with current plastic repair methods,” he says. “One by one, we started seeing more opportunities for us to apply 3-D printing. So, we bought a couple 3-D printers, got trained on CAD engineering, brought in someone with experience, and then started designing parts that would restore and bring these parts back to life.”
That was over a year ago. Today, Kramer, chief information officer, works with a team that’s not only established a process for repairing parts with 3-D printing, but also started to implement that process across the nation. Kramer explained to FenderBender how that implementation will work and what issues 3-D printing will address in Service King shops.
Why has 3-D printing become a focus for Service King?
It's one of those things. We've been doing plastic repair as a company for years. But what we started noticing was the capabilities of what we had in plastic repair were still somewhat limited, and there were so many opportunities to expand it. Plastic repairs weren’t expanding at the same rate as plastic was being introduced by the auto manufacturers.
So, we did some dumpster diving of parts we were discarding that weren't eligible for plastic repairs. These were parts that were normally within the realm of repairable, but because of the way parts were being designed or manufactured, we were limited in what we could do with our existing plastic repair techniques. We started looking at what was the cause of these parts being discarded, and while there were instances where parts were too far gone to be restored and couldn't be put back onto the vehicle, there were also so many instances where a minimal component of the part itself was compromised. One percent of a bumper fascia could be compromised in a collision, and 100 percent would have to be discarded. And we didn’t like the concept that these things could be repaired if we could potentially reproduce that part, and we started thinking about 3-D printing.
Our senior director of field technology is very savvy in the world of plastic repair. He's a former technician himself with familiarity to 3-D. So, we started looking into the opportunity of restoring a part. Because existing techniques were limited, could 3-D give us something that our existing process couldn't? And with the continual decrease of the acquisition cost of a 3-D printer and the filaments and the spools, it's making it more and more accessible to more and more industries, and the cost of experimenting with it a little bit is so low that it was easy to conduct.
What we did is take a discarded part and said, can we render this bumper tab? And lo and behold, it was not that complicated to do. So, we rendered it, printed it, reapplied it to the bumper, and it was just as strong on one side as it was on the other. That symmetrical test we did showed the promise we had there.
Then we did our legal research, determined what we can and can't do, where we should and should not repair, and we started experimenting with our own vehicles and seeing if we could reproduce parts. Were they just as durable as when they came out of the factory? And the answer was, overwhelmingly, yes.
For the parts on the back of a bumper fascia, like the tabs, that typically only have a few millimeters of plastic on them, reattaching them before was impossible. So, we started innovating and realized we could recreate the part and incorporate our design footings for these bumper tabs, so it would give something for the adhesive to attach itself with, and that right there revolutionized the entire process for us. It was no longer recreating the part. It was about recreating the part in the way that made it feasible to repair it with a 3-D printed part that would imbed and include a footing on it so it gave us an attachment point. Again, if you look at prior designs for how we would do plastic repair: If the part was too thin to attach, you didn't have enough of a surface for the adhesive to grip. With 3-D printing, we can add in a footing that can be incorporated into the part so it gives it the strength required to attach the part and keep the part in place on the vehicle.
How have you experimented with 3-D printing at Service King locations?
We're on the heels of our continual growth as as company and adding plastic technicians at our locations. As we add plastic technicians, we are bringing along with it this concept of 3-D repair, and it comes with three different approaches.
One of them is we'll actually give the plastic tech a tackle box, which induces all kinds of pre-printed parts and service tabs that can be used to restore a variety of parts for different manufacturers. It covers a significant percentage of what they can typically repair.
Another option is that they can take a photo with graph paper of the part they need. They typically do that by taking a picture of its symmetrical cohort. So, if it's the right side that's compromised, they can take a picture of the part they need off the left side. With graph paper placed behind it, we can actually send that and import that into our CAD software, and we can render it and print it. If the part they need is thermoplastic, polypropylene, or ABS, we can use photography, bring that into CAD, print the part a little larger than it's asked for, shave it down and make it into the right size and incorporate it into the part.
Another option is adding in a library service-oriented parts that techs have asked for. Think of it like a file sharer where you print off a document. This will be the same thing. They say I need this, request it to be printed, we print it off our network enabled 3-D printers, and we would just send it to the location.
And how will 3-D printing be rolled out to Service King shops nationally?
We’ll be introducing a new standard operating process for how our shops will go to market and operate at full efficiency. Through that model is how 3-D printing will be introduced to the entire company. It’ll be a huge change for our plastic technicians, but it will also be a huge change to our front office and determining what’s eligible for repair. So, there’s a two-pronged approached at the shop level. The new model will revisit how we go to market at the shop level—how we execute work, how we produce work more efficiently—and as part of the introduction of that model, the 3-D printing will be introduced along with it. So as that program rolls out nationally in 2018, so will the adaptive plastic repair process.
How are you going to train shops on the 3-D printing process?
We have some plastic technicians that have been apart of this process since the inception. One plastic technician has been a phenomenal proponent of this and he's been very successful. He’s been able to use all three variations: the tackle box, the on-demand ordering, the photography. The store has been successful with it too. He and a few others have been subject matter experts, and have volunteered and been part of helping us roll those out elsewhere.
It's an education that really needs to occur beyond the repair itself. Advisors need to be aware of how plastic repair impacts the procedures and what's available with repair vs. replace. The education has to happen from the general manager all the way through to the technician for this be successful.
But the education process itself is very straightforward. This really is taking existing processes we already had, like the plastic repair process already in place today, and adding another dimension to it that is opening up the possibilities of repair. Before most products had to be replaced. Now, it can be probed a little further.
Did the focus on 3-D printing stem from repair concerns from insurers?
The insurers were looking for us to address the rising costs of repair, and 3-D printing in some cases can do that. If a headlight is mostly intact, but just one tab is compromised, why do we have to buy an entirely new headlight and pull the car in the bay until the part can be sourced and delivered? Why increase the length of rental and possibly the cost if there’s was just one piece that with traditional plastic repair methods could not be repaired?
We've found in several occasions it does reduce costs. It puts one less part into a landfill, but also reduces the cycle time, which means the customer can get their car back quicker, while also doing something about rising repair costs. So, if there's an opportunity to all three of those things to work themselves out, there's no reason for us to not take that opportunity.
How does it help reduce cycle time? Is it really quicker and cheaper than ordering a part?
It absolutely can be. If the dealership down the street has the part in inventory, that’s a decision that has to be made at the local level to understand the conditions of the repair, the vehicle and the needs. But in many instances, if sending a 3-D printed part is in keeping with what it would be to source it from a dealer, if not faster, they'll go with that. If it's a little bit longer, then that's when on the local level they have to decide what makes sense for the customer and the carrier and the technician.
But with that said, in the instance where we pull a part off, nothing is going to fit back into your car better than the part that was already there.