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Hello, 3D printing! Goodbye, logistics?

3D printers have the potential to revolutionize the global economy. But how long will it be until that happens? And what are the implications for the logistics industry?

23 Oct. 2015
3D Drucker_Industrie

For six-year-old French boy Maxence, 17 August was a really big day. For the first time in his life, he was able to grasp a tennis ball in his right hand. Born without a right hand, Maxence was able to accomplish this feat with the aid of a newly fitted prosthetic. Even more amazingly, the prosthetic hand in question cost just € 50 to make, thanks to 3D printer technology.

With 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), computer-controlled printers deposit layer upon layer of material to build up finished products. The technology has been in use in the aircraft industry for a number of years because 3D-printed parts are much lighter than machined ones yet just as strong. 3D printing has in fact made its way into practically all spheres of manufacturing and is used to make everything from dental crowns to musical instruments and entire cars. Even pizza is an option. The possibilities, it seems, are endless.

This promises a major shake-up for the logistics sector, although not in the short to medium term. "There’s still quite a way to go before we see a full-blown revolution of the world economy," says Sebastian Fritz, a spokesperson for the US-based 3D printer provider Formlabs. In his view, it remains to be seen whether and how 3D mass production can be achieved. "In the short to medium term, 3D printing will revolutionize small-series production because that’s an area where decentralization is already viable. Production of customized parts in small batches is moving out of the factory and onto customers’ desktops."

The end of logistics?

So, do 3D printers spell the end of logistics? Far from it. The experts agree that logistics is here to stay. It's just the goods and the form in which they are warehoused that will change.

"The challenge in spare parts logistics is that parts have to be kept in stock for very long periods, even though many of them will never actually get used. 3D printing solves this problem and frees up capital for logistics operators," says Dr. Markus Kückelhaus, Vice President Innovation & Trend Research, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation. With 3D printing, digital information takes the place of parts stockpiles, thereby reducing storage overheads and material consumption.

Shorter transport routes

As well as 3D printing, there is a trend in manufacturing towards product individualization. This is where, in response to customer demand, manufacturers are moving away from mass production and increasingly supplying one-off, personalized products. The intersection between these two trends will have consequences for logistics. Traditional logistics structures in which finished goods are shipped to distributors may soon to give way to more fluid arrangements in which industrially produced "made-to-order" kit sets are assembled and individualized in small batches in local finishing operations involving 3D printers.

In other words, for the foreseeable future, conventional manufacturing will continue to have significant cost advantages over 3D printing when it comes to mass-produced goods and standardized parts. In the short to medium term, the main benefits of 3D printing will lie in replacement parts production and highly individualized, short product runs.

"Long term, the worst-case scenario is that intralogistics may be used only for printer production and shipping 3D printing materials to users."

Sascha Schmel, President of Germany’s VDMA Materials Handling and Intralogistics Association

Not that this scenario is likely to materialize, given that the overall volumes of goods produced and materials used and transported are more likely to increase than decrease.

So, what are the logistics market opportunities arising from these trends? A Deutsche Post DHL study entitled Logistics 2050 puts it like this: "The decentralized organization of production turns strong regional logistics capabilities and a high-quality last-mile network into important success factors."

Obviously, it will be a long time before 3D printing approaches anything like the "Replicator" in Star Trek. But that’s no reason for the intralogistics industry to be complacent. Rather, it needs to monitor these developments closely and ensure it is always up to date with the latest technologies and trends, lest change take it by surprise.

What steps do you need to take in the next few years to get ready for the 3D printing paradigm shift? Find out at CeMAT.

Book your ticket now!

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