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What's coming next in 3D printing: 4 questions for UPS's Alan Amling

Alan Amling discussing the My Way Highway, and the future of on-demand-manufacturing at his TedTalk.

Alan Amling is VP of UPS’s Supply Chain Solutions. Most of his career has been on the innovation-side of the business-marketing strategy, e-commerce strategy, new-product development-mixed with business unit marketing leadership roles. Looking at the future, the convergence of trends and how he can keep on the right-side of disruption. He currently runs UPS's Global On-Demand Manufacturing Initiative, but has his hands in some emerging technologies (IoT, blockchain), opportunities (global e-commerce) and disrupters (platform businesses, smart cities) with a constant focus on sustainability (economic, environmental and social).

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What do people least understand about 3D printing?

Probably from the hype around 3D printing around five years ago. It wasn’t even really 3D printing. It was more like experiments with prototyping. It just wasn’t compelling. We weren’t interested. When the patents expired on those printers, it unleashed a massive innovation. Now, the printing is what you’d call industrial printing, it’s material science. It was around 2014 that we saw this was going to be either a threat or an opportunity, and we decided to embrace it. That’s when we developed FastRadius. They’re creating microfactories all over the world now.

The questions customers now ask is: What part should I print? How can you guarantee quality—not just a one-off, but consistent quality no matter where or when its produced all over the world? And how do I protect my Intellectual Property (IP)?

There’s new carbon and metal technology. It’s amazing. The cost curve is going to decline. I see dramatic changes happening in the next 2-5 years, but, you know, sometimes you can be surprised. I would have never predicted how fast we got to this point.

What’s the biggest surprise you see coming the next few months or year?

The entry into the market was for service parts. We had an inside view because lots of companies store parts nearby in our facilities. We were aware of just how many companies needed to store their parts for long periods of time. What about parts that are 20, 30 years old and the companies that created them are often out of business? With 3D-printing, or what we call On-Demand Manufacturing, you can have the part printed immediately, and often at a higher quality than you could have before. The model is stored digitally and doesn’t age.

What I probably least expected was what’s happening with customized goods. You know, now they make things aiming for the “best fit,” and they ship them out in bulk often from long distances. Now, you can get what we’re starting to call “exact fit.” Say you want to get a pair of ear buds, and maybe they even provide you with five different sizes. Now you can take a picture of your ear—each ear—with your iPhone, and the company can create custom ear buds that fit your exact ears. Also, with footwear, Adidas is working on creating carbon imprints of your exact foot. Fascinating.

What are the fears of the logistics industry? Will there be less to transport because of the increased efficiency? Are people concerned that A.I. will replace their jobs? Are these necessarily unfounded claims?

In my opinion, the fear isn’t warranted. We’re attacking a new industry, moving up the value chain. We don’t see it separate from logistics, and that’s a key point for us. There is no difference between what is coming and what we’re already doing. If anything it’s really only an increase.

We’re optimizing the supply chain. It’s all about efficiency. You’re increasing or decreasing your warehousing. We already do that today. Are we losing jobs today from increasing efficiency? It’s a win-win situation. It’s just another tool.

How will manufacturing impact cost of shipping during the holiday season?

When you look at the volume over the holiday season, everything is growing—the speed and efficiency can get in the small package network direct to consumer. Consumer goods, I really don’t see On-Demand Manufacturing moving the needle much on that anytime real soon. That’s probably in the 2-5 year range. The biggest impact we’re going to see first is service parts. Like a fuel nozzle for GE’s leap engine is now going to be a single, well-constructed part rather than 27 separate parts that have to be assembled.

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