Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

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It is difficult to keep pace with technological change, particularly where the relevance of a technology to the logistics business is not immediately obvious. To help you track developments like these we are introducing a series of posts on new technologies, starting with this piece on 3D printing by guest blogger, Ken Cottrill. 

The project team at a US-based fashion apparel company has received approval for the digital design of a new multicolored shoe for women the enterprise plans to launch. At the press of a key, the design data is fed to a 3D printer that begins to “print” a prototype shoe. Simultaneously, a supplier’s 3D printer in China starts the same process. Later that day, the team calls its Chinese supplier to discuss the finished prototype and production of the stylish new model. 

This is not science fiction, but a routine operation for many companies. Prototypes of products such as shoes used to take weeks to make; now they can be ready in less than a day using 3D printing.

The technology is called additive manufacturing because it creates a three-dimensional object by adding successive layers of material just microns thick. Each layer is a cross section of the product.

Traditional manufacturing is reductive in that it reduces, say, a block of metal to a machine part by hewing the item from the base material. The process creates a lot of unused material, unlike 3D printing which generates virtually no waste.

The “ink” in 3D printing is the stuff from which the product is made. It could be a stream of molten plastic that is deposited layer by layer to make a gear wheel. The range of materials is increasing and already includes metals and ceramics. And the price of printers has come down dramatically over recent years and continues to fall.

Most exciting of all is the potential for producing finished products, and this is now happening. Low-volume, high-margin items are well suited to the process. The next time you are unfortunate enough to need a dental crown, for example, there’s a fair chance that the item will be printed.

As the technology develops, it is expected to fundamentally change many industries. Customization will become relatively trivial for many products since a change in design can be achieved by simply tweaking the production software. Switching to a new product is relatively straightforward as well, and does not require substantial investments in molds or dies.

Logistics services providers should keep an eye on the technology. If you haul parts for the auto or aero industries, for instance, some portions of your business could disappear. Think of a chain of auto shops that instead of stocking a low-volume car part simply prints it to order on the premises. Applications like these are expected to gain traction over the next five years or so. Expedited shipments are also in the firing line. Instead of shipping an urgently needed part to a distant location, it is possible to scan the object, transmit the data to a sister unit, and print the item thousands of miles away.

But 3D printing also opens up tremendous opportunities for the logistics services business. Feedstock for the machines such as plastic pellets and metal powder will have to be delivered. And the technology could accelerate the growth in online orders since its low entry barriers will likely encourage legions of new manufacturing entrepreneurs.

Looking further ahead, third-party logistics services providers could become manufacturers. A company that sells, say, designer lampshades – an object that can already be printed – becomes a design and marketing house, and leaves the manufacturing and distribution to a 3PL equipped with 3D printers.

Imagine an international network of digital printing installations agile enough to switch to new products and designs in hours, or an ultra-responsive postponement operation. Postponement is a well established supply chain method for delaying the final configuration of a product as late as possible in the manufacturing cycle when more accurate demand information is available. The method is tailor-made for additive manufacturing technology. Maybe we’ll see new variations on the theme, such as factory ships that use 3D printers to configure products while in transit.

There’s a lot to contemplate about the future impact of additive manufacturing, and here is one final thought you might like to ponder: self-printing 3D printers.



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