OVH Tests Out 3D Printing
“We have acquired a mass market 3D printer. For the time being, we're trying out this new technology and considering the possibilities it can offer us”, explains Jean-François. The 3D printer being used in Roubaix Valley works on fused deposition modelling: “The print head melts a very fine plastic filament at 260°C. The print head is then moved to deposit layers of plastic material, one by one, according to an increment determined by us. We can manufacture hollow pieces to save on material, which are made with a meshing to ensure that they are solid.” The plastic used - ABS or acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene - is common in the industry due to its shock resistance. Henryk continues; “Evolution of the technology is already huge - we can already find different types of 3D printers on the market for working different materials. We will move forward gradually, deepening our studies little by little. Then we will purchase more sophisticated machines that will allow us to manufacturer metallic parts, for instance.”
The two men are currently focussed on reproducing mechanical components that can be used in the servers, which are available in data banks on the internet. A screw here, a nut there, a fan grill or a few sockets elsewhere… “We could manufacture a large number of plastic components covering nearly all of our requirements,” explains Henryk. “Right now, we're at the experimental phase - we're testing the parts for resistance and verifying their technical reliability, and we're also studying the production costs. Our study is still in its infancy and we're still trying to develop our vision. One or two years from now, I think we'll be able to put what we're currently developing into practice.”
Potential savings to boot
3D printing would enable the hosting provider to make big savings, while revisiting its business model. “As innovation enthusiasts, we keep an eye on what's happening in the new technologies sector so we can offer cutting edge solutions to our customers... and 3D printers are a sign of the new industrial revolution! Within a few years, manufacturing processes will be totally turned upside down,” says Henryk enthusiastically. “For example, suppliers will no longer have to manufacture, store, then deliver components. They will carry out the state-of-the-art task of designing and developing components that we can reproduce here, according to our needs.” Reducing transportation and storage costs to the minimum by manufacturing parts from inexpensive raw materials would allow OVH to optimise production costs and as a result, to offer customers ever-increasingly competitive products.
And yet 3D printing can go far beyond simply reproducing existing mechanical components. The main advantage is speedy prototyping, as Jean-François explains; “A few years ago, we called on a supplier to help us develop a small part, a type of wedge that we insert into the servers to block the small hard disks. So we drew up the plans, then we received a first prototype, which we then modified before requesting a new sample etc.” A process which not only takes time, but which also involves significant costs; “Plastic prototyping currently requires the services of injection moulding companies. However, plastic injection is very costly and one mould involves a prohibitive investment of €5000 to €10,000. However, contemplating in-house development of this type of component is no longer impossible. We could subsequently launch the manufacturing process on a larger scale, and boast an even better responsiveness.”
So the hosting provider is harbouring great ambitions, even if Henryk is delaying them. “Of course, we're already building our own servers, but we're not going to manufacture all of their components", he remarks. "I'm thinking of electronic component manufacturers, with their own expertise and highly sophisticated workshops. Naturally, we will continue to procure our supply from them but we can imagine that sometime in the near future, we will produce all of the mechanical server components ourselves, by way of 3D printing.” Jean-François concludes; “I'm convinced that we have yet to comprehend the full potential of this machine. We'll soon be thinking up new methods, new products and new marketing techniques.”