Spare parts for trucks, especially complicated aftermarket or replacement pieces for older models, are often expensive and difficult to produce.

But Mercedes-Benz Trucks might have a workaround in the form of its 3-D printing technology, which recently produced an aluminum and silicon replacement component equal in quality to the original.

The company said Wednesday that its Customer Services and Parts department created a 3-D-printed thermostat cover for older Mercedes-Benz and Unimog truck models. The piece is the first metal truck part of its kind, according to the company.

The breakthrough has major implications for truck manufacturing, which currently suffers from low stock and long waits when special pieces or replacement parts for limited edition or classic vehicles are involved, according to the company.

Fabricating complex metal configurations at the push of a button could make small-batch parts production much more cost-effective, adaptable and quick, according to Mercedes-Benz Trucks. The company’s parent, German auto giant Daimler AG, owns the Western Star and Freightliner truck brands in North America.

The technology could allow companies to use digital data records to manufacture parts on command, scaling back storage space for unnecessary inventory and streamlining delivery time and costs, making for more decentralized, localized warehousing.

“The particular added value of 3-D-printing technology is that it considerably increases speed and flexibility, especially when producing spare and special parts,” said Andreas Deuschle, marketing manager for Mercedes-Benz Trucks. “This gives us completely new possibilities for offering our customers spare parts rapidly and at attractive prices, even long after series production has ceased.”

The thermostat cover, for example, fits in truck models that haven’t been built in 15 years. But the strong, heat-resistant piece passed all of Mercedes-Benz’s quality-assurance tests.

Researchers laid down a powdered aluminum and silicon material and melted it layer by layer using lasers. The process could be repeated for engine parts, cooling system components, transmissions, axles, chassis and more.

“We ensure the same functionality, reliability, durability and cost-effectiveness with 3-D metal parts as we do with conventionally produced parts,” Deuschle said.

The worldwide 3-D printing industry enjoyed a 17.4 percent revenue increase last year, according to an annual report by consultancy Wohlers Associates Inc. Overall, the market is now worth more than $6 billion.

This year, Parisian digital manufacturing company Sculpteo surveyed nearly 1,000 industry leaders from 62 countries working in sectors such as consumer and industrial goods, technology, services and healthcare.

The company found that 3-D printing was seen first as a way to accelerate product development and then as an avenue for customizing products. Among those who have used the technology, a third tapped it for prototyping, and nearly a quarter used it as a proof of concept.

Plastic is still the most popular 3-D printing material, followed by resin and then metal.

“In a world where customers always wish to get the most personalized experience that they can, companies have to satisfy customers’ needs,” researchers wrote in the Sculpteo report. “3D printing is a real partner for them, especially with the possibilities this technology offers in terms of production of customized products and limited series.”

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