Laser metal 3D printer. Photo: UPS Longitudes

Laser metal 3D printer. Photo: UPS Longitudes

E-commerce is all the rage these days, but inventory requirements for shippers may actually decline in the years ahead if 3D printing catches fire. 

Anyway, that’s the prediction of the authors of the latest State of Logistics report. They see this gee-whiz technology being used first and foremost by manufacturers to fabricate spare parts on demand and by retailers to personalize merchandise for individual customers. 

Also known as “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing is still largely being used to accelerate product development (28%), offer customized products (16%), and increase production flexibility (13%), according to a 2017 survey by Sculpteo, which provides online 3D printing services.

Among big logistics players, Big Brown has already stepped up to the printer. UPS announced last year that it was launching “a distributed, on-demand manufacturing network” that links its global logistics network with 3D printers at 60 UPS Store locations in the U.S. The company said customers will place 3D print orders online and the work will directed to the optimal manufacturing or UPS Store location based on speed, geography, and product quality required. What’s more, the orders can be shipped as early as same day

“UPS is a leader in bringing industrial-strength 3D printing to reality,” according to Stan Deans, president, UPS Global Distribution & Logistics. “By building this disruptive technology into our supply chain models, we also bring new value to our manufacturing customers of all sizes. Additive manufacturing technology is still developing rapidly so ‘manufacturing as a service’ is a smart approach for many companies.”

In a recent blog post, Alan Amling, UPS vice president-- corporate strategy, suggests thinking of 3D printing “as the Uberization of manufacturing, where supply can be accessed anywhere in the world to produce goods at the click of button.”

Amling says the upshot will be a rise in “more direct-to-person manufacturing as well as delivery. Physical stores will be reserved for generic goods, not items customized to the individual. Hybrid customization has enormous potential for logisticians.”

He paints an enticing picture of a 3D future: “Imagine thousands of products from cell phones to blenders, each made with a common core but customizable covering. Third-party logistics providers are uniquely suited to move these items.” He points out, too, that logistics firms like UPS would “simply store the common core in their warehouse, print the custom piece and finish final assembly near the point of consumption.”

Widening use of 3D printing by manufacturers will also disrupt service parts logistics, says Amling. “Right now, companies make and store hundreds of thousands of critical parts around the world at tremendous expense just on the off-chance that they’ll be needed for an emergency repair. In the future, these slow-moving parts will be stored virtually and printed on demand.”

Amling expects that growth in 3D printing will lead manufacturing to re-invent itself. “Machines designed to construct a specific product will give way to 3D printers capable of making many different items.” He sees that trend as “the sparkplug for efficiency across supply chains” and adds that “we’re just scratching the surface of where additive manufacturing will take us.”

Related: Getting Smart in the Warehouse

Related: Special Report-- Trucking in the 21st Century


About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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