How will 3D printing alter the movement of freight?

Mercedes-Benz Trucks is printing 3D parts for some of its European distributors. 3D printing could alter supply chains as businesses would not need to ship inventory or components long distances.

Turning bits into atoms in real-time? It’s as profound as the idea of instantly sharing thoughts across the world would have been to a person just a few decades ago. So how close are we to the dreams of the 21st century, and what does 3D printing have to do with it?

The story begins with manufacturing. Layer-by-layer, additive manufacturing, colloquially still called 3D printing, is a disruptive form of manufacturing that is transforming—in the short term—the spare parts supply chain. Soon enough it will be much more. A San Francisco startup is printing houses—with better construction and for less money per square meter than standard construction today. And if you think it’s all just plastic, think again. They’re printing cars. They’ve been printing jet engines since early 2015.

Around the globe, people are using 3D printing to create all manner of things, even 3D printing food. Instead of carrying slow moving parts across a network of warehouses, these warehouses will just manufacture the parts as needed. 3D printing offers many advantages over traditional manufacturing, like the ability to print hard-to-find machine parts on demand, or print shapes that aren’t found in traditional manufacturing processes.

While the manufacturing side is fascinating, the question many continue to ask is: How will this in turn impact the movement of freight?

Chairman and CEO of UPS, David Abney, certainly believes the future is coming fast. He believes that within the next 10 years we’ll think of 3D printing as just printing, and a competitive advantage, but more importantly, for those not in the early adopter space, “a competitive disadvantage from an effect of time, or cost, or even from being a good partner of the economy.”

Dreaming up cool stuff is fun. But how far away are these pie-in-the-sky, manufacturing projections? It’s one thing to watch Star Wars or read The Martian Chronicles. It’s another to pass by an abandoned rail yard, or fight through traffic cluttered with diesel-coughing semis, and wonder just how fast change is happening really.

While 3D print technology has been around since it was introduced on Good Morning America in 1989 as “just-in-time manufacturing,” it is now growing at an exponentially rapid rate. The amount of money being invested into the research and testing of 3D printing is a great sign that it portends to be a big player in the not-so-distant-future for many industries.

Watch: UPS CEO David Abney talks about 3D printing and the supply chain

The best advice for shippers is to follow the trends in manufacturing. If your shipments are comprised of commodities more in line with what is being manufactured through 3D printing, consider diversifying. Also, follow the trends of what will be needed to transport the raw materials to the 3D manufacturers that aren’t as obvious today. For instance, if printing houses becomes a “thing,” what are the materials the manufacturers will need in their composites? What aspect of using 3D technology can help with your fleet? What products are so overpriced that you could actually create it on a nearby site so as to make it financially viable?

If you don’t want to follow the manufacturers, just consider the logistics behemoths. UPS, FedEx, Ryder, and DHL, among others, are adapting their fleet vehicles to be ready for the next big thing in manufacturing.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.