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3D printing

Will 3D printing make the last mile obsolete?

3D printing is on the rise: In industrial manufacturing for instance, this flexible production process is becoming increasingly common. But what impact will it have on logistics?

20 Feb. 2018
3D-Druck

The term "3D printing" generally refers to so-called additive manufacturing methods, in which an object is incrementally produced from plastic, ceramic or metal, usually layer by layer. This means it is not milled or drilled, as is the case with subtractive processes.

Apart from the broad range of materials that can be used, the advantages of 3D printing are the complex structures that are possible – structures which can moreover be extremely lightweight and stable. Products can also be designed with a higher degree of individuality, and individual production of prototypes and spare parts is just as possible as mass production. Since long development phases are no longer necessary and the production of injection molds is no longer required, all the user needs is a computer model from which the object can be additively manufactured, resulting in cost savings, particularly for small batches.

Proximity to end customer means smaller transport distances

In its study on the potential impact of 3D printing on logistics providers, ZF Friedrichshafen draws only vague conclusions. According to the study, 3D printing frees production from needing to be on site at the “factory location”, as it moves more closely in the direction of the end customer. Several scenarios are conceivable here: Retailers could take over the production of products by farming this out to stores equipped with 3D printers. The logistics providers could also take over the production process themselves by printing the ordered goods on their own premises. In both cases, transport distances would be drastically shortened and storage costs reduced.

Relocation of spare parts production

Particularly when it comes to spare parts, 3D printing offers great potential, since the parts would no longer need to be stored in large warehouses. Instead, they can be produced in close proximity to the customer in a quick, efficient additive process. Equipment manufacturers would also no longer need to keep spare parts in stock. Each part could be constructed based on the available computer data. In the case, however, where no licenses for parts printing were awarded to local retailers, logistics would continue to take over the transport routes.

A further option would be to have customers print the desired products themselves, from the comfort of their homes. This would end up replacing even the so-called last mile. This scenario however is still the furthest from realization, as home printers have limited performance capabilities and cannot compete with specialized equipment in industrial applications. It thus remains questionable whether the technology will ever enjoy widespread sales. At present, only the printing of small spare parts appears realistic, for example as components of furniture or major appliances.

Affordability remains key criterion

Although the potential of additive processes is considered very high, the future impact on logistics is still difficult to assess. The production process will continue to depend on cost-effectiveness. Additive manufactured components are an affordable alternative for small quantities. For large quantities, however, traditional production methods are currently still lower than for printing – and thus continue to be an object for logistics.

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