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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Advances in 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing and the supply chain…

Imagine you are an executive at UPS. What market shifts would keep you up at night?

Maybe it’s the fact the Amazon.com announced they want to get into the logistics business to compete head-to-head with UPS and FedEx. Maybe it is the rapid development of drone technologies as a way of delivering packages.

But there is something that has the potential to completely disrupt UPS and the entire supply chain: 3D printing.

In today’s world, materials, parts, and finished products are shipped all over the globe. Raw materials are shipped to parts manufactures who ship their items to a company that assembles them into a finished product. The finished product is then shipped to a warehouse that ships it to the end customer. That’s a lot of shipping.

But consider how 3D printing has the potential to shake things up. Now, instead of shipping products you simply email a blueprint and you get the finished product where it is to be used and when you want it. The logistics network is pretty much eliminated.

Knowing this could be a major disruption to their business, UPS has launched an “On-Demand 3D Printing Manufacturing Network” that is designed to get ahead of the game. In addition, they’ve launched 3D printing capabilities in many of their stores.

The best word to describe the current 3D printing capabilities in the UPS stores is “cute.” You can make plastic toys, wrenches, iPhone covers, or money clips (see the picture above). None of this is overly impressive and it might give the impression that 3D printing is not yet mature enough for true commercial application.

But the technology has been evolving rapidly in the past couple of years. In 2016, a division of Airbus, released the world’s first 3D printed electric motorcycle (see picture). And just last month, BMW announced their plans to create motorcycle frames using 3D printing.

3D printing is even being used to build large structures such as bridges. In Amsterdam, they are building a stainless steel bridge across one of the canals using 3D printing. The video showing how it is done is very cool. The process is slow, but things will speed up in the future.

Or consider a house printed with a 3D printer, done in 24 hours for less than $10,000. Unlike previous attempts to build houses where parts were printed and then assembled, in this case all of the printing was done in one location by one machine. There are more examples of house building emerging all of the time.

And just the other day, the world’s largest 3D printer was announced in Australia. They claim that it can “print rocket fuselages up to 60 meters long.”

Of course, it can be easy to get seduced by the coolness of the technology. It’s important to remember that a 3D printed car, for example, only matters if the costs are lower, the quality is better, and the time to delivery is faster. From my perspective, speed-to-market along with mass customization is the real game changer. Consumers can get exactly what they want, when they want.

The future of 3D printing is quite promising. And the future is now.

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