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logo (3)While the United States Postal Service has undoubtedly been going through tough times for a number of years now, they continue to forge onward with an eye toward the future–and the technologies that could play a role in their daily operations. 3D printing has been on their radar formally since we reported last year on their white paper, If It Prints, It Ships: 3D Printing and the Postal Service, as they began a general foray into examining how the technology may help dollars flow into the USPS–rather than out, as many would logically project. This initial exploration focused on expectations for a volume of lightweight 3D printed shipments.

UspsoigWhile some predict a rather extreme future for consumers and 3D printing as they make absolutely everything on their own at home and cut out shipping, that certainly couldn’t be further from the truth as a current reality. The post office now states that they wouldn’t expect that to be the case for at least another decade, which is merely an initial point in the white paper, An Update on 3D Printing and the Postal Service, released October 7, 2015.

The OIG points out that as is often the trend, many would simply rather farm out the work of 3D printing rather than house the equipment or do the technical work on their own. Because of that, numerous 3D printing service entities like 3D Hubs and i.materialise are thriving, and many 3D models–of all sizes–are being mailed.

And while the USPS may have been in a slump over the past couple of decades, it’s important to realize that they’ve been in business more than a couple of hundred years. Certainly they can take on a new vision–and some new roles. At least the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) seems to think so, and in line with that is mandating that they take a closer look at how profitable 3D printing could be for the USPS aside from revenues brought in from shipping small 3D models. What about the issue of proximity leading to a new market for hubs–and partnerships? The OIG sees supply chains and basically most of industry being disrupted and transformed, which is not an uncommon train of thought, but as for how it affects the post office is multi-tiered.

“Experts say that the largest disruptions from 3D printing will fall on the logistics industry, which is very important to the Postal Service. In fact, 3D printing could disrupt more than a third of global air cargo or ocean container shipments, as well as a quarter of the freight trucking business,” states the OIG. “This would fuel a shift in shipping demand from long-distance transportation to last-mile delivery, with products printed locally instead of requiring assembly from parts coming from all corners of the world. These changes could catalyze the trend toward reshoring American manufacturing jobs that went overseas decades ago.”

UntitledBecause the where and the when will be redirected in terms of 3D printing, the OIG recommends that indeed cashing-in on the ‘collapse of distance’ would be in the best interest of the USPS, as well as something they could do as feasibly or even more so than other shipping companies. The OIG looks toward 3D printing partnerships and activities that UPS has engaged in, as well as La Poste of France, which actually has 3D printing hubs inside their locations and even offers customized packaging for 3D prints. For the USPS though, they know to remain engaged in what they are good at, and that’s definitely ‘last mile delivery.’ With that in mind, they should be able to take advantage of the shift in not only shipping from long distances to shorter, but also the fact that many items will be assembled close to their actual delivery point.

Currently, individual makers, retailers, as well as the competition’s movement into this arena are driving more of a sense of urgency on the part of the USPS, which expects that the many customers involved in the 3D printing industry may expect deliveries to be much faster due to manufacturing and production happening so much closer by–possibly ‘even early morning and late evening delivery.’ The OIG foresees speed becoming essential, along with the locations of ‘base stations.’

Along with 3D models comes delivery to many of supplies and equipment as well. The USPS has taken a close look at the expansion of companies who is selling these items as well, as indicator of how much mail could be going out, with much more mainstream companies like Home Depot and WalMart getting in on sales. That generally means lower prices, greater accessibility, more 3D printing–and a lot more people relying on the USPS to deliver their goods.

As they look toward the future, the OIG recommends anticipating needs and getting in on this action before it’s too late. As the OIG states, “With 3D printing, the opportunities may be far too good for the Postal Service to wait and see before responding.”

Discuss this story in the 3D Printing and USPS forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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