3D Printing & the Transport Industry

3D printing has become one of the newest form of technology that has the transportation and logistics industry wondering how this type of technology will affect how the industry operates in the coming years. What exactly is 3D printing? How is it being used in the industry now? How is it going to advance in the future? We explore this in today’s blog post.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is an automated method of making goods.  It works by using a computer-aided design to build products by creating layers of material. This technology was originally created to make prototypes since mass production of prototypes was not economically viable.

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Why is 3D printing beneficial?

3D printing is great for customization. It is utilized by companies to make prototypes and one-off products that don’t need to be mass produced. Currently, small companies can use 3D printers effectively to create products that are highly original, no two products need to be the same. In doing this companies are able to appeal to customers that want customized products, customers can have a much greater say in the final format of the product.

How can this help companies?

3D printing provides huge opportunities for companies. Because customization and printing of individual goods is available, companies would only need to print inventory when required. They wouldn’t need to have large inventory on hand because they could make the goods as the orders come in. This also means that companies can offer a wide range of products without having to worry about housing slow-moving goods. While this is currently only feasible for small companies with low demand it is not unlikely that this could become commonplace for large companies in the future.

This technology can also help to reduce distribution times. Currently, most companies house their inventory in large cities. The emergence of 3D printers means smaller shops could open up and provide goods closer to their point of contact with consumers which means reducing distribution and transportation costs. For example, footwear and toys are two types of products that are costly to ship but are suitable for 3D printing. Large companies producing these types of goods could see a shift to 3D printing in the coming years as the technology evolves, and small companies offering these types of goods can take advantage now.

3D printing has also be used to make replacement parts. Many companies have started carrying 3D printers in their trucks, boats, and in their place of work. Having a printer onsite that can download and print a replacement part a worker needs means not having to arrange a pick up from a manufacturer and means having the replacement almost immediately.

Additionally, 3D printing can reduce or remove the need to follow the manufacturer-wholesaler-retailer model. In the future retailers could become a window for the manufacturers to expose products to consumers. A wholesaler would be unnecessary since companies can produce goods completely in one place and offer them to the consumer. This also eliminates the need for an assembly phase of the production chain. Labour, storage, handling, and distribution costs can all be reduced by having the goods printed in one place.

3D printing also opens up a new sector of the logistics industry – 3D printers. The emergence of this technology means there is a demand for the printers all around the world as well as a demand for people who know how they work. Companies like Amazon have already started working with this technology so companies manufacturing products will be able to reach out to 3D printing companies in order to have their products made, negating the need to do it themselves.

This all sounds great, what is the downside?

The downside is that many of these benefits are just projections right now. Currently this technology only benefits small companies that can work with small amounts of inventory. 3D printing is currently much slower than mass production so it would have to be relevant and worthwhile to large companies to be able to operate using only this technology. Right now many companies use a hybrid – they are incorporating 3D printing as fits into their production process. This seems to be the most likely case for most companies until the printing is able to mass produce goods.

3D printing also stands to radically shift the distribution process and transportation industry if mass production becomes viable. There would be no need to ship products around the world since companies could print goods in the consumer’s city. Research shows air and ocean cargo would be the greatest businesses affected by this shift and would be at risk if this technology reaches a mass production point.

Additionally, jobs in all areas of the production and distribution process could be at risk if this technology advances to a mass production level.

In Conclusion

As of right now 3D printing has not reached its tipping point. There is still a long way to go in this technology until it becomes the singular way companies are producing products. Until the technology is able to increase production speed and reduce unit costs for large companies it is likely to remain a production method used only for small businesses and prototypes. 3D printing could cause a fundamental shift in the manufacturing and distribution of goods but until then it is important for the transportation and logistics industry to keep themselves up to date on emerging technology such as 3D printing in order to adjust and accommodate advancements in this technology and prepare for what a future with this technology in it would look like.

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Sources

http://www.industryweek.com/supply-chain/how-3-d-printing-could-disrupt-your-supply-chain
http://www.strategyand.pwc.com/perspectives/2015-commercial-transportation-trends
http://www.supplychain247.com/article/the_implications_of_3d_printing_for_the_global_logistics_industry