In today’s economy, a customer can order pretty much whatever they want whenever they want it — as long as that product is for sale on Amazon or another online marketplace and is sitting in a warehouse somewhere, ready to be shipped.

In tomorrow’s economy, 3D printers could allow consumers to order whatever custom item they want, whenever they want it, and still receive it within days.

3D printing is still in its infancy, primarily used for one-off products and demonstrations of the technology. But industrial-grade 3D printing isn’t far off. Analysts at Canalys expect the global market for 3D printing and associated materials to grow to $20.2 billion this year.

This could disrupt every aspect of global supply chain management. Currently, most manufacturers make their products in locations that optimize the costs of labor, materials and shipping. Shipping is often the most expensive component of operations. And shipping costs are compounded across supply chains, as raw materials are shipped to initial manufacturers, those products are shipped to assembly plants, and so on.

3D printing could allow manufacturers at every step of the supply chain to manufacture large volumes at low cost closer to their consumers — which could have a huge impact on the global shipping industry.

How could 3D printing Affect Freight Volumes?

3D printing will take a bite out of shipping volumes, experts across the board agree. The only question is how significant that bite will be.

According to Air Cargo News, in 2018 a McKinsey & Company partner estimated that between two and four percent of all current cargo has the potential to be made with current printing technology. Furniture, he pointed out, could almost entirely be printed instead of shipped by 2025 — after all, think about how large the market for custom furniture already is. That could eat into about 14 percent of air freight shipments, he said.

Strategy&, a division of PwC, made an even more dramatic prediction in 2015: Three-dimensional printing threatens 41 percent of air cargo, 37 percent of ocean freight, and 25 percent of truck freight.

“I don’t think it’ll be a significant dent in the next year or two, but in the next five years and certainly in the next 10 years I definitely expect to see a reasonable dent in the supply chain as additive manufacturing matures,” product transformation lead for Deloitte Consulting LLP Vinod Devan told Supply Chain Dive in February.

In the production process of a single product, a shipping carrier might move component parts a number of times. But the promise of 3D printing is that companies can produce parts under one roof instead of half a dozen. So, for third-party shipping carriers, 3D printing is a threat. It means there will be fewer shippers moving goods through the supply chain.

What is Additive Manufacturing?

“Additive manufacturing” is, essentially, the industry standard term for 3D printing. It refers to the process of taking 3D model data and using it to build an object piece by piece, layer by layer, as opposed to taking a large piece of material and removing all the material that is unnecessary.

Traditionally, “additive manufacturing” has referred to the process of rapid prototyping — designing and building objects that can be tested and iterated before they’re ready for mass production. But now, it is being used at the production level in a number of industries, from aerospace to furniture to medical devices.

Additive manufacturing has two key benefits for the companies that use it. First, it allows them to manufacture products with less material and less waste. And second, almost every product can be customized with a few small tweaks to digital 3D models, making manufacturing processes much simpler. Mass customization will be quicker and more attainable than ever.

An economy built around additive manufacturing, rather than assembly-line manufacturing, could produce goods on demand — rather than producing warehouses full of goods and shipping them on demand. A customer could order a mattress or athletic equipment and have it produced to their specifications. In theory, goods would never be out of stock or on back order. Instead of keeping goods themselves on hand, manufacturers would only need the digital files necessary to produce them.

One other perk: Companies could keep digital files on hand to produce spare or replacement parts as needed. It’s possible that, in a 3D-printed future, no product would ever be out of print for good.

What would New Business Models Look Like?

Almost everything has the potential to be created by a 3D printer. Take the automobile. Currently, each of those parts is produced on a different assembly line in a constellation of factories across the globe. Parts are united and assembled a few at a time. There are many links in this chain until, finally, the whole of the car is assembled and ready to ship.

Not only can the body of the car be designed and built using additive manufacturing, but so can every component part, from gaskets to gas caps. In theory, manufacturers could store the files necessary for producing each of those parts and print them all under one roof. A manufacturing economy powered by 3D printing would offer much greater opportunities for customization: Adidas announced last year that it would start selling a line of 3D-printed sneakers, and Ikea would be well suited to 3D-print furniture specifically sized for customers’ homes.

It would also mean fewer factories along the supply chain and less need for trucks to transport those parts from their production facility to their assembly facility.

The more complex a product is, the more links in its supply chain, and so these changes compound, but in different ways. For manufacturers, that means the cost savings compound. But for shipping carriers, the losses do.

A manufacturing economy powered by 3D printing would be one that requires fewer factories, fewer warehouses, and fewer miles shipped. As each link in the supply chain is consolidated, a trucking route or air shipment is made obsolete. These shipments — moving large quantities of identical products from one facility to another — are the most efficient, and the most lucrative, for carriers today.

There may be more business for last-mile shipments, moving 3D-printed goods from factories to their customers who, presumably, ordered those products online. But the last mile is the most expensive and inefficient part of the shipping process — that’s why so many shippers are trying to contract it out to USPS, in the cases of FedEx and UPS, or to third-party contractors, as Amazon and DHL have done.

The Future of 3D-printed Supply Chains

Even the most clever designers are, today, still reliant on global supply chains. It takes months to design a product, and months more to source and test the components that will make up that product. Negotiating with suppliers, and paying to ship those components, is a huge expense for manufacturers. But making components in-house is often even more expensive.

In the not-too-distant future, 3D printing could upend this traditional economy. Manufacturers are already using 3D modeling and additive manufacturing to design prototypes. If those systems can scale, manufacturers will be able to make a huge variety of products for themselves, giving them a competitive advantage.

In turn, for those manufacturers, that means less time spent researching suppliers and monitoring their performance. It also means reduced reliance on shipping. That could lower costs for manufacturers and reduce their carbon footprint — but it’s also likely to decrease efficiency and ultimately decrease profits for third-party shipping carriers.

Ultimately, though, 3D printing likely means cheaper products for end consumers, produced faster and customized to their needs thanks to printing technology.

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