The impact of 3D printing on the manufacturing and logistics sector

4 min read

3D printing has been used by the automotive and aerospace industries to build prototypes for some time now. Over the last few years, the technology has evolved at a rapid pace, and the market share of additive manufacturing is likely to grow. Seeing how rapidly the various 3D print technologies have developed so far, we can assume that more and more industries will invest in it. Manufacturers are already exploring which items they may be able to produce using 3D print technology, and logistics service providers are launching pilot projects to identify the need, potential and options for adjusting their business models to include 3D print services. Logistics Trend Radar, published by DHL, expects an annual growth rate of 13.5 percent for additive manufacturing. The 2013 study predicts that the global market of USD 1.8 billion in 2012 will grow to USD 3.5 billion in 2017. And the 2014 report cites a McKinsey study that forecasts a market of USD 550 billion in 2025 . Experts agree that 3D printing promotes local and regional production, and that the next 20 years will see 3D print centres emerging close to sales markets.

However, many of the goods that are currently mass-produced will continue to be mass-produced. That's because many articles that can be manufactured with traditional processes at very low cost would be much too expensive to produce in large quantities using 3D print methods. At the same time, the trend towards customisation will continue, as 3D printing makes it possible to accommodate individual customer requests during production. Manufacturers will no longer need to keep large volumes of standardised products in stock, moving instead to a more flexible "made to order" manufacturing model. In the future, customers will be able to modify the model of a lampshade online before placing their order.

Volume shifts from long-distance to last-mile shipping

The advance of 3D print technology may well mean that in the future, goods no longer need to be shipped halfway around the world because they can be printed close to the consumer. But for now, the idea that in 35 years we will only be shipping raw materials and 3D print cartridges is still just a faraway vision.

DHL's Logistics Trend Radar further cites ongoing globalisation as one of the megatrends of tomorrow. While the advance of 3D printing could counteract the trend towards globalisation, it is at this point still unclear what impact 3D print technology will have. Forecasters are also cautious when it comes to the overall impact of 3D printing on shipping volumes. Logistics Trend Radar names 3D printing as one of the technology trends whose full impact will not become clear for at least 5 years, and ranks the potential as "moderate", not "significant". This hesitation is based on the uncertainty as to whether 3D printing will be able to replace traditional manufacturing processes.

So, it is not yet possible to predict if and to what extent the advance of 3D print technology will affect global transport volumes. Routes are likely to shift, with fewer finished products shipped from far away. Meanwhile, the importance of local production sites close to consumer markets will increase. Initially, this would mean a decrease in long-distance shipping and an increase in "last mile" shipping. This assessment is based on the experiences of recent years, which have seen a sharp rise in e-commerce.

It is currently impossible to say for certain whether the expected increase in custom manufacturing will actually lead to more individual package deliveries. Improvement efforts have already been underway for a while to reduce transport volumes by consolidating shipments and optimising truckloads. As individualised production and distribution grows, such efforts must be redoubled to prevent the volume of last-mile shipping from growing at the same rate.

Replacement parts as data models in virtual warehouses for print on demand

Replacement parts present one of the greatest opportunities for 3D printing. Companies have an obligation to supply replacement parts to their customers, even years after the sale. Keeping these replacement parts in stock ties up significant – and potentially costly - storage space. After long periods of storage, many parts may no longer be used and have to be disposed of, and older parts may be outdated when equipment is upgraded with new functionalities. 3D printing offers the solution to this challenge. It is possible to save a good deal of storage space if all you need to do is archive digital blueprints. Replacement parts for tools and machinery with improved functionality can be digitally adapted and printed on demand, saving warehousing space, materials and resources.

The British, American, and Chinese militaries have already adopted 3D printing for these very reasons. The US Army prints out surgical instruments and protective masks directly in war zones. Shipping containers are reconfigured as mobile 3D print shops in order to provide soldiers with the equipment and replacement parts they need. NASA is also experimenting with the possibilities offered by 3D printing and has commissioned the production of a 3D printer suitable for deployment in outer space, which may enable astronauts to print their own tools and replacement parts.

Opportunity for logistics service providers?

Logistics service providers often manage the provision of replacement parts as one of their services. UPS and DHL have launched pilot projects to study the viability of expanding their services to include 3D printing. Time will tell whether manufacturers turn to their logistics service providers to store and maintain their blueprints, or whether this will become a new niche for IT specialists. Logistics service providers will only be allowed to store data models and print 3D products or components if the manufacturers trust them and are prepared to give them their digital blueprints.

What's certain is that in the future the "value" of a product will reside in a digital file. Manufacturers will try to protect their intellectual property by inserting copy protections and assigning licensing rights.

Environmental benefits?

Amongst the proclaimed benefits of 3D printing is that it may help to preserve natural resources and reduce CO2 emissions. For example, manufacturers are using 3D print technology in the aerospace industry to build aircraft with parts that are lighter than conventionally manufactured parts. This reduces weight and fuel consumption and leads to lower CO2 emissions. 3D printing also enables more local production, which may minimise the need for shipping goods around the globe, thereby further reducing CO2 emissions. And of course keeping only blueprints in digital storage would save storage space and the energy required to run warehouses. Plus, 3D print processes only consume the material needed for the end product, leading to a reduction in material consumption.

What will the future bring?

The advance of 3D print technologies seems unstoppable - the market share of additive manufacturing will increase and the trend toward customisation will continue. We will all benefit from the new technology's ability to accommodate individual customer requests during production, and we will all get used to involved new processes and regulations that will come to pass. Instead of fully taking over the future, however, the most likely outcome is that 3D printing will take its place alongside traditional production technologies, rather than replace them.

The author, Darren Travers, is Senior Account Manager, AEB (International) Ltd.