Fleet Management

How Will 3D Printing Affect Trucking?

What happens to trucking when people can buy something on Amazon and print it in their home 3D printer, or have it printed at a local facility and delivered the same day?

November 2015, TruckingInfo.com - WebXclusive

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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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:


  1. 1. James [ March 19, 2015 @ 04:38AM ]

    Is this the best you can do for a story? I see no significance in this except the hype a tabloid has to offer. If this is the best you can do remove my name from your contact list.

  2. 2. Dan [ March 19, 2015 @ 05:26AM ]

    I came up through the ranks of the trucking industry starting in a truck wash bay, company driver, owner operator, company owner, Safety Manager, Trucking insurance adjuster, and completed a degree in Environmental Engineering.

    I read HDT every morning for at least the last 10 years and have found the written content addresses current issues affecting the trucking industry until this morning.

    After giving the author due consideration for the effort it took to assemble this load of waste, I find that I have actually wasted a few precious minutes, damaged brain cells, and the cost of this aspirin to consider the effects of "3d Printing".

    I think James is on target on his prior comments, with the thousands of current issues facing the trucking world today, HDT chose toactually pay the writer of this article compensation to take us on a trip into future world which will have no effect on trucking until late August, 2175.

    Holy Crap, people are printing stuff, my God ,,its the end of trucking, fire the cannons, raise the drawbridge, call out the guard!!!

    As everyone knows 3D printing will not be a "Industry Changer" in my lifetime or in the lifetime of anyone old enough to read this , besides anti-gravity trucks are sure to negate the effects of 3d printing anyway!

    C'mon Deborah, lets exit to reality, exit the cab safely, and get our feet back on solid ground !!

    In closing I would recommend HDT move written content back to relevant
    topics that affect the trucking industry within our working lifetime and get rid of the damm front page advertisements.

  3. 3. Gil Wortsmann [ March 19, 2015 @ 05:31AM ]

    James: you are saying the same thing that was said about the "horseless carriage," now called the car. Even the computer people Hewlett-Packard said that they see no great demand for the computer. The American Army in the 20's saw no use for an air force. That's enough for now. General Billy Mitchell was almost drummed out of the army in the 20's because he wanted air power for the military. That's enough for now.

  4. 4. Tom Johnston [ March 19, 2015 @ 05:40AM ]

    Wow Dan.......people thought personal computers and bottled water were crazy ideas too. Technology moves at lightening speed, and at an increasing rate every month. 3D printing will absolutely have an impact on transportation services and routes well before 2175. The only beef I have with this article is looking at new technology as a threat to existing business instead of an opportunity to create new supply chain models and systems.

  5. 5. Tracy [ March 19, 2015 @ 06:57AM ]

    I found the article interesting and you have to remember just about everything has some impact on the trucking industry. In the 90s it was bag phones and now smart phones. You have think about back when you sent invoices by mail and wait on the check. Now you send it email and with in a few minutes or hours you have the money in the bank. That had an impact on trucking, so if you can design something on a computer then email it 3000 miles away and a machine make it in minutes or hours well that impacts trucking. I'm 53 years old and never thought I'd be sitting here in my truck reading this online magazine and sending a message from a phone. We can only hope that the technology will be also used to save lives. And to think if I would have told my grandfather in 1974 this was the way it would be he would've probably laughed a lot. To everybody in the trucking industry be safe and God Bless.

  6. 6. UH2L [ March 19, 2015 @ 07:13AM ]

    Great article! People that think this article is a waste will be the first to go out of business because they don't want to think outside of their bubble and don't realize that there are things that will pop those bubbles. It may not happen today but in the future for sure. Planning long term is crucial to the survival.

  7. 7. Mike [ March 19, 2015 @ 08:03AM ]

    How funny..you better move with the times and technology. My friend above is in a desert with 100 trucks and trailers saying ..I know companies will call soon for my services..won t they..I m an old guy who has been in business for 33 years and if I hadn t moved with the times I d be in my rocking chair Mike

  8. 8. Dan [ March 19, 2015 @ 12:29PM ]

    Why is it that people always miss the point of discussion,,,, and always wait for the first person to offer a comment so they can figure a way to have an adverse opinion.

    feedback on my last comments are all over the board, the simple point is that this technology wont be here to affect trucking for at least another 100 years ?

    Its not about the horseless carriages, cell phones, the Air Forces, Billy Mitchell, bottled water, computers, rocking chairs or popping bubbles,

    its about common sense.

  9. 9. John Baxter [ March 20, 2015 @ 06:03AM ]

    An amazing story. This stuff is like reading science fiction. But, obviously, this is highly relevant to truckers!

  10. 10. Jesse [ March 21, 2015 @ 06:45PM ]

    "It will reduce the importance of some lanes, while opening up new ones". Thanks for that expert analysis. Goofball...

  11. 11. Pete Basiliere [ March 22, 2015 @ 06:53AM ]

    I am not a trucker; this article was passed along by a friend. I am an industry analyst who has covered the 3D printing industry for seven years.

    We will continue to experience incremental advances in and uses of 3D printing technologies. The advances will impact the trucking in several ways.

    Equipment manufacturers are already using 3D printing in their operations - check out 3D printer maker Stratasys' recent press release about Volvo. One advantage of 3D printing is that not only the large manufacturers but you, the reader, can come up with an idea for an improvement and then 3D print it yourself or have a 3D printing service bureau do it for you.

    Another area is replacement parts - not every broken part has a readily available spare. Depending on what the part is made of, a 3D scan can be done, the file cleaned up in modeling or CAD software, and then a suitable replacement part printed. Considering the age of some equipment used by the trucking industry, this could be quite valuable.

    But most people who are thinking about 3D printing and the trucking industry have in their mind the impact of 3D printing on the amount of goods carried by truckers. Overall, when you consider the volume of goods that is hauled today the impact will be negligible for years, maybe decades. BUT the impact on individual carriers of their customers' use of 3D printing could be noticeable much sooner. For example, the growth of 3D printing service bureaus (such as Shapeways for consumers and QuickParts for enterprises) that 3D print and then ship items to the buyer will increase the number of packages and shipments.

    In other words, the impact of 3D printing on the trucking industry is minimal at present, will continue to grow into the future and - importantly - depends on how we look at the uses for 3D printing.

  12. 12. Drew [ April 01, 2015 @ 08:01AM ]

    3D printing is a very young technology that will grow at a rapid rate. The amount of money being invested into the research and testing of 3D printing is a great sign that 3D printing will be a big player in the future for a lot of industries.

    Which paths 3D printing will ultimately take is still a mystery. A few of the many emerging 3D printing companies will survive the initial boom and those companies will dictate what path 3D printing takes.

    It is an exciting time and I hope 3D Printing and Trucking can find a way to coexist.


  13. 13. Shannon [ April 02, 2015 @ 05:03AM ]

    I was looking forward to this article addressing other areas of 3d printing, not the worry my customers will start building their own product. But I'm looking at the aspect of what can I build using 3d printing to help my fleet? What pieces of plastic are so overpriced I can manufacture them with a 3d printer and make it financially viable? With everything going to plastic, is this stronger than injection molding? Can I make a cabinet latch cheaper? A cab extender? What non-safety related pieces can I cut costs on to help my fleet? Maybe not today, but in the near future. But this article missed that.

  14. 14. Peter McManus [ April 09, 2015 @ 08:03AM ]

    nteresting comments on this thread.

    I agree with the "articles like this are helpful" faction. Yes, there are many immediate issues the trucking industry faces, and HDT and many of the other trade journals do a great job in covering to the point that the coverage becomes saturated. The one thing I wholeheartedly disagree with you, Dan, is the amount of time it will take for 3D printers to be commonplace as I think you only have to look at the last 10-20 years to see how fast technology implants into the mainstream. I see nothing wrong with devoting 5-10% of a publication's space on innovations for the future. Deborah, you have my support.

    Dan, as far as your comment about "and always wait for the first person to offer a comment so they can figure a way to have an adverse opinion" I have to point out that not everyone is on the same time schedule as you are, or even a time zone. Yes, there are some bad apples in the blog world...but the majority of us are just like you albeit with differing opinions!

  15. 15. Deborah Lockridge, Editor [ April 09, 2015 @ 08:12AM ]

    Shannon, some interesting questions for a follow-up article!

  16. 16. John McNeilly [ December 24, 2015 @ 06:28AM ]

    A most interesting story. This has to be already affecting UPS and the like as small parcels of materials were already shipped through their system. That alone qualifies this article to be in a transportation magazine. Then to read that China built a five story building using the same process,as well, no that couldn't possibly affect trucking, could it? Trucks that would have hauled the rerod, concrete, steel beams, wood, insulation, drywall, paint, etc, they weren't affected either, right?.How soon will it be until we are moving entire truckloads of materials for this most interesting technological process? Or moving truckloads less? Deborah, well-written and you exercised good editorial judgement to run it.

  17. 17. Charlie Samuals [ June 16, 2016 @ 11:40PM ]

    Nice One.


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