How Will 3D Printing Impact Supply Chain?

LDL Voice

According to growth consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, 3D printing is expected to increase its market share to about 40 percent this year—a more rapid increase than previously predicted. This new manufacturing process could fundamentally disrupt product supply chains and threaten freight business in the not-so-distant future.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process in which material is laid down in thin layers to form a solid object. Products containing numerous parts and that are largely assembled by machine—such as footwear, toys, plastics, or electronics—are most likely to be mass produced by 3D printers in the future. Food, paper, and pharmaceuticals are examples of goods that do not lend themselves to 3D printing.

Though not yet ready for broad adoption, the technology is advancing quickly, and the cost of 3D printers is dropping. Manufacturers and transportation companies should understand how this trend may affect them, and assess their current high-volume product segments before 3D printing arrives in full force.

As the use of 3D printing continues to grow, many products, their parts, and other materials needed to manufacture them will most likely be made locally. In turn, this could reduce or eliminate prior transportation needs. Additionally, fewer production processes and tooling can lead to reduced costs, less inventory, and shorter lead times for manufacturers.

While manufacturers benefit from the operational efficiencies 3D printing can bring, transportation providers may take a revenue hit if they aren’t fully prepared. Global commercial transportation lanes are particularly at risk since more products will be manufactured locally. A recent analysis found that as much as 41 percent of air cargo business and 37 percent of ocean container business may be affected. About 25 percent of over-the-road (OTR) trucking business is also at risk, due to the potential reduction in goods that start as air cargo or as containers on ships (Strategy&).

Carriers should assess how vulnerable they are to the effects of 3D printing based on the types of goods they are currently hauling. If viable, carriers that are more likely to be affected should analyze whether they should shift their portfolio toward products that are less vulnerable, like food or clothing. If a carrier is heavily invested in the movement of parts and not well positioned for the rise of localized production, it may be time to think about re-positioning assets and developing a more regional strategy. Regardless of vulnerability, 3D printing will present transportation companies with opportunities for new business ventures through niche specialties and added logistics services (Go By Truck).

It’s difficult to know when 3D printing will achieve mainstream adoption or which companies will choose to embrace it, but its value is clearly growing. With fuel prices currently down and an economy on the rise, now is a good time to examine future threats. 3D printing is going to cause major structural changes to product supply chains, and it’s better to anticipate these changes now than react to them later. 

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