The Strati is a small electric car produced largely via 3D printing. How would that kind of change in manufacturing affect trucking companies that haul mostly auto parts to factories? Photo courtesy Local Motors.

The Strati is a small electric car produced largely via 3D printing. How would that kind of change in manufacturing affect trucking companies that haul mostly auto parts to factories? Photo courtesy Local Motors.

Business is booming, fuel prices are down. So it’s time to start thinking about the next threat to the industry: 3D printing.

Advocates of 3D printing have said it can transform manufacturing. This week, a new startup company announced a new 3D printing technique it says may actually deliver on that promise.

In traditional 3D printing, the machine "prints" layers of material to create a 3D object. This takes time and leaves ripples showing where those layers were laid down. But what if you could "grow" an object out of a pool of liquid, much like the T-1000 rising from a puddle of liquid metal in the movie 'Terminator 2'?

By carefully balancing the interaction of light and oxygen, Carbon3D's new CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production) technology continuously grows objects from a pool of resin. This results in smooth 3D objects that appear to magically emerge from a pool of liquid as a machine draws them upwards.

"CLIP allows businesses to produce commercial quality parts at game-changing speeds, creating a clear path to 3D manufacturing," says the company.

The CLIP process could turn out objects that are more like injection-molded items, with smooth exteriors. And it can be used to create objects from elastomers, which has applications ranging from car parts to athletic shoes.

Check out this video of the CLIP process at work:

But that's not all. A few weeks ago, researchers in Australia printed not one, but two metal jet engines. The 3D printing process used the powder form of metals, melting them and fusing them together into objects using a laser.

A Chinese company recently even printed a five-story apartment building!

In fact, a recent report from Eye For Transport found that 19% of manufacturers and retailers are already using 3D printing in their businesses.

3D printing and transportation

What does all of this mean for trucking? Andrew Schmahl, a partner in the global management consultant Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), recently wrote an industry paper on the topic of 3D printing and the commercial transportation industry.

In short, he says, 3D printing has substantial implications for both domestic and international freight businesses. It will likely reduce the importance of some transportation lanes while possibly opening up new ones.

Schmahl offers as an example General Electric’s jet fuel nozzles. Under the traditional method, this component contained 18 separate parts made from a variety of raw materials. All of these parts had to be machined, cast, brazed, and welded before final assembly. Now, the nozzles are made from a single alloy using 3D printers with a process known as additive manufacturing, in which successive layers of the alloy are melted, shaped, cut with lasers, cooled, and then laid down on top of each other to produce the finished part. These nozzles are lighter, more durable, and more fuel-efficient than conventionally manufactured ones, GE says.

Or consider the Strati, a car designed by Phoenix-based Local Motors, which 3D printed the main structure of the car at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, right on the floor of Cobo Hall.

The car’s body is made from thermoplastics on a 3D printer. Nonprinted parts include the motor, transmission, wheels, and steering column. You won’t see a Strati on the highway anytime soon (the maximum speed is around 40 mph, and the car doesn’t meet requirements for highway use), but it may not be long before someone in your neighborhood is tooling around in one of these electric vehicles, which will weigh about two-thirds of what a typical car weighs and will sell for between $18,000 and $30,000.

Local Motors plans to build the cars in micro-factories typically located within 100 miles of major urban centers.

"A typical car that Toyota would make is somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000 parts, that have to be moved from wherever they're made to wherever they're assembled," Schmahl told HDT. The Strati car has fewer than 50. Conceptually, what that means is 3D printing has an interesting ability to disrupt supply chains."

When Strategy& looked at nearly two dozen industry sectors, it found that as much as 41% of the air cargo business and 37% of the ocean container business is at risk because of 3D printing. Roughly a quarter of the trucking freight business is also vulnerable, due to the potential decline in goods that start as air cargo or as containers on ships and ultimately need some form of overland transport.

Looking at the 3D printability of various products and transportation cost as a percentage of the total cost of the product, Schmahl found that footwear, toys, ceramic products, electronics, and plastics have the most potential for disruption of the supply chain.

The higher the transportation cost as a percentage of total cost, he said, the more likely someone is going to look to change how and where they produce it.

"Things like food are not going to be disrupted," he said. "Pharmaceuticals, they're not going to be 3D printed because you need chemicals interacting with each other and special chemical processes to happen."

Schmahl points out, however, that 3D printing could open up opportunities in other areas. "The molecule has to get from wherever it comes out of the ground or is made in a lab to the end user," he says. "The question is, does it take the shape of a raw material like a toner which is cheap to move, or is it the finished product, which has packaging and takes up space and air" in a truck or cargo container.

These changes aren't going to happen overnight.

"3D printing has actually been around for quite a while," Schmahl says. "The best use right now is for very low runs of highly customized products, things that are really expensive to do when you have tooling you need to change out.

"The question is, where between one-off custom prototypes and the extraordinarily simple dull mass produced widget will 3D printing infiltrate? I don't know if anyone can predict that with clarity now, but I think it's safe to say more things will be 3D printed tomorrow than today."

What to do next

"It's not 'Chicken Little the sky is falling transportation as we know it is dead," Schmahl says. But it is something to start thinking about when doing long-term planning.

For instance, do you want to start diversifying your customer base so you are hauling fewer of those at-risk type of goods? Maybe you want to look at redesigning networks for more localized moves.

And think about potential for additional freight. If he were a fleet, Schmahl says, he would be asking himself, "If people are going to print in their homes and local factories, how can I get those molecules to those homes and factories?"

Mashable explains 3D printing in video:

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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