A high-tech addition to the event rental toolbox
by Brock Huffstutler
3D printing technology is making major inroads in the rental industry. On the equipment side, this can be seen in construction where massive printers can build houses and other structures, and even in the manufacturing of component parts for machinery that can help alleviate supply chain-related shortfalls.
However, the tech is beginning to pop up as a useful tool in the event rental industry, too. 3D printers can be utilized to develop memorable, custom-made display items and to work around supply issues.
Prime examples of the application of 3D printing in the event segment are the creations being spun by Tim Sandahl, branch manager, Broadway Tent and Event, Minneapolis.
“I’m a nerd. I do a lot of 3D printing stuff. I started making parts for some of the equipment here and that got me into it. I’ve been doing it pretty consistently for about five years, and now I do it as a side hobby at home,” Sandahl says.
Sandahl says that his entry into the world of 3D printing was largely motivated by his desire to be a cost-conscious steward of his company’s buying resources.
“I was finding out that it was hard to get individual plastic items without having to buy the whole set,” he says. “It was actually beverage dispensers that got me into it. [The vendor] wanted a couple hundred bucks for a kit. I didn’t need all of them; I just needed one, but you had to buy the whole kit. So, I thought I could print one, because the printers were cheap. The cost savings were more than the printer and source materials. I printed one out, it worked, and it just snowballed into other stuff.”
Beyond the beverage dispensers, some of the items Sandahl has developed by 3D printing for Broadway include maintenance department jigs and parts, “Mr. & Mrs.” tabletop text figures, large-size Connect Four game tokens, vases and custom-made “Class of…” graduation props. His creations even include attention-grabbing, wall-mounted display items like the head of a “terror dog” from “Ghostbusters” and the arm of the villainous alien from “Predator” brandishing a skull.
“I have also printed the non-metal parts for another printer I built from scratch, and parts for a 4-ft.-by-8-ft. CNC router to cut our Connect Four game boards from plastic sheets,” Sandahl says.
The 3D printed items that are prominently displayed in Broadway’s showroom not only are suitable for clients’ needs, they also are able to be produced on demand and not subject to frustrating “out of stock” situations or the months-long lead times that vex many vendors.
Another advantage of utilizing 3D printing, which can deliver a virtually unlimited palette of designs for practical use or fun, is the conversation that often is sparked when people discuss the awe-inspiring technology that brings designs to life.
“They are good talking points and conversation starters. A lot of people ask, ‘What is that?’ They are a draw,” Sandahl says.
The jury may be out on whether 3D printing will catch on industry wide as a commonly used on-site solution for producing event rental inventory, but the technology has been beneficial for Broadway Tent and Event.
Printing a potential solution to part shortages
The use-return-repeat cycle is the nature of the equipment rental industry. That means a lot of maintenance and repair work, which means the need for parts. Amid ongoing supply chain snags, which some commerce observers anticipate will persist into 2023, the lack of access to maintenance parts and components are a headache for many in the industry.
“Parts continue to remain an issue, and I think that every industry you look at is finding the same issue,” says Danny Showalter, president, CVR Rentals, Waynesboro, Va. “We continue to do the best we can. If we have multiples of something, we try to just keep the items going.”
Ben Blood, vice president, Big L Rentals & Sales, Garden City, Kan., says that when managing around the shortage of parts, it is all about “being creative in trying to find new, alternative vendors for things that we can use when our primary vendors may not have stock. When common parts are available, we try to have a large commonality across our fleet. That might mean a door hinge for a Skyjack telehandler. When we’re going to order four of them, we go ahead and order 12 to keep them on the shelf. Because likely the next time you need to place an order, they’re not going to be available.”
3D printing of parts could be one way to ease the pain shared by equipment rental operators who today may out of necessity need to stretch their inventory to uncomfortable limits or devote time and effort toward forging relationships with a broader network of vendors.
A report published in January 2022 by 3D Printing Industry, a global media company, on current trends and forecasts in the world of 3D printing suggests that the pandemic plus supply chain issues have only increased the confidence manufacturers across many industries have in the process.
The outlook on the viability of 3D printing as a salve for parts shortage pain is confirmed by those who specialize in the technology, like Steven Alviti, vice president, enterprise sales of Bel Air Finishing in North Kingstown, R.I.
“We cross all vertical markets: aerospace, medical, firearms, electronics, etc. Every industry is utilizing 3D printing at different levels,” Alviti says of his company, which manufactures equipment that services the 3D industry via a proprietary “post processing” method and which also uses 3D printing for tooling and prototype testing for its systems.
Alviti says that while conversations surrounding the shortage of essential machine parts caused directly by supply chain tie-ups have not yet become a common occurrence with his clients, “the theory has been thrown around. Specifically with the ability to produce products for ‘older model’ or ‘discontinued’ components. Being able to print parts to replace units that aren’t available any more is a very invaluable tool.”
From his perspective as an equipment manufacturer that has experience in the 3D printing space, specifically, to contractually polish and smooth printed parts for clients, Alviti feels the use of 3D printing as a reliable resource for component parts when traditional supply channels fall short is poised to skyrocket.
“I think it will dominate this niche. [In industries like] automotive, defense, aero — definitely,” he says.
Equipment manufacturers also are using 3D printing for products. Click here to read how they’re making use of this technology.