Specter or opportunity?
Sneakers, spare parts, sugar icing delicacies, or even the 3D model of a human heart – hardly a week goes by nowadays without a new product made by 3D printer hitting the headlines. As such, it is little wonder that companies from a wide range of industries are now examining the use of 3D printers. Logistics service providers are also launching pilot projects to determine whether and how the new technology will influence their business models.
It is clear that the market share for “additive manufacturing” (the production of items or parts using 3D printing technology) will continue to grow in future. However, it is not yet completely clear when, and to what extent, this production technique will be in a position to complement or even replace traditional manufacturing methods.
Simply designed items
Plastic cutlery, buttons, screws, and pen cases are all examples of simple goods that can already be made using a 3D printer. They can also be made economically in high-wage countries due to the low number of employees needed and the reduced labor costs associated with the automated production of these parts. For technically straightforward items and parts, the technology can thus already be used relatively easily. Accordingly, as 3D printing technology develops, the chairman of the board of the logistics company Kühne & Nagel, Karl Gernandt, expects a significant proportion of mass-produced items to be manufactured in the respective countries, instead of coming from factories in the Far East.
3D printing could signal a completely new kind of storage. Instead of constantly stocking a wide range of spare parts, the parts could be printed on demand, allowing the timing and quantity to be controlled with precision. Complex ordering processes would no longer be necessary if the printing order just had to be sent to the machines. Even automatic solutions are conceivable here. This would involve the systems automatically placing an order as soon as the number of parts in stock dropped below a certain figure.
Rarely ordered C items, which have previously occupied an unnecessarily large amount of storage space and yet must remain permanently available for service reasons, could be printed when ordered in future. This would save valuable space and keep storage costs within reasonable limits.
Prototypes can also be easily produced. Instead of casting complex molds or setting and adjusting machines, a USB stick with a 3D model is sufficient to print the part. Almost any geometric form that can be illustrated three dimensionally can be printed with a 3D printer. As such, it is now conceivable to make items and shapes that were previously impossible or uneconomical to reproduce.
The technology behind 3D printing puts companies in a position to make individual products to order. Small batches of custom-made items can also be economically produced in this way.
Production tools for industry
The car manufacturer VW is already making some assembly equipment and production tools by means of 3D printing. Following extensive testing, these are now being used in standard product applications in Wolfsburg.
It may yet be some time before on-demand production establishes itself with no warehouse or tools, but the first steps have already been taken.
The impact on logistics
The list shows that companies are certainly well advised to gear themselves up for the opportunities and challenges associated with the new technology, because it is clear that items and parts of different kinds and shapes can be produced relatively easily with the help of this machinery.
For all the opportunities presented by 3D printing, there are naturally also risks. Counterfeit products could be brought into circulation, for instance, with potentially hazardous consequences in some cases. Plagiarism is also easy if the print data falls into unauthorized hands. In addition, the materials used often lack wear resistance or tensile strength. The material properties of identical parts printed one after the other also often differ minimally from one another. This leads to inconsistent quality and makes the parts unappealing for a wide range of applications.
Does 3D printing nonetheless have the potential to change the logistics of tomorrow? To start with, besides providing stimulus for manufacturing locations, the storage space required for rarely needed spare parts or components and other slow-moving goods would be reduced as a result of “just-in-time” printing. That’s good news for companies that generally struggle to store an increasing amount of goods, but it is not such good news for the logistics service providers that would be confronted with less demand for their storage spaces and transport services.
However, logistics specialists could quite easily turn the tables by becoming pioneers of the new technology themselves.
Logistics specialists as 3D printing service providers
There are opportunities to be seized particularly in the area of spare part logistics. After all, if required parts are produced by 3D printing in future, it is likely that not every manufacturer will consider it has the expertise to supply these items in the desired quantity and quality. It is therefore likely that this will lead to the emergence of specialist service providers that will undertake 3D printing orders for external customers. Why shouldn’t it be logistics companies that have sufficient space to install the printers?
The logistics service provider TNT has already reacted to the challenge by setting up 3D printing stations at a number of its locations. TNT wishes to appeal to both major companies and smaller and medium-sized companies with its service, and give them the opportunity to get acquainted with additive manufacturing. If the technology catches on, TNT wants to offer its customers individual printing and supply chain solutions in the long term. The transition from a supplier of pure logistics to a vertical service provider, with its own production structures in the form of high-performance 3D printing stations, would thus be complete.
Increase in individual delivery traffic
The more products that no longer have to be shipped from Asia and instead can be printed locally, the greater the reduction in global delivery traffic. At the same time, however, local transport volume increases. After all, no matter whether the logistics specialists themselves or other companies undertake the printing orders, the items and parts still have to be shipped to the customer once the order has been completed. And who is in a better position to do this than logistics companies that specialize in transporting goods to customers with their optimized supply chains?
Storage of source materials
However, there will not only be an increase in local traffic transporting the printed parts, because the raw materials that serve as the starting point for the items have to be delivered to the 3D printers. Logistics specialists will therefore always have to transport raw materials and supplies, not to mention spare parts for the printers, although the machines will ultimately be able to produce these themselves.
It is clear to see that there are opportunities galore – for both manufacturing companies and logistics specialists. They simply have to be seized.