3D Printing’s Impact on the Shipping Industry: Too Early to Tell

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With many of the newer technologies taking shape today, it’s difficult to quantify how they will affect the surrounding industries. The implications of 3D printing or additive manufacturing, for example, are more mysterious than those of say, advanced robotics. The latter will primarily be used to drive automation. 3D printing, on the other hand, is about locally produced goods or components. It’s a little more challenging to define what that means for the future of specific fields.

How will it affect manufacturing? What does that mean for international markets? What about shipping, especially considering 3D printing nearly obliterates the need to source goods remotely (for some goods)? On which goods will 3D printing make an impact? Or will this technology only have a marginal effect on trade flows? 

Understanding Additive Manufacturing

While the most common form of 3D printer is one that produces items using plastic filament — therefore creating hard and ABS plastic goods — the technology can be adapted to work with many different materials. Printers can be adapted to work with things such as concrete, wood, and metal. The Hadrian X is a 3D printing robot that lays bricks, for instance.

The nature of technology will change the majority of conventional practices in the modern industry. It helps to look at a potential scenario. In construction, teams can build prefabricated components either off-site or on-site with the help of printers, merely transporting them as necessary. For local builds, the printing materials would need to be moved to and stored on the project site. But if the parts are developed off-site, then those materials would no longer be required. Conventional materials wouldn’t be needed either since the prefabricated sections are built ready to assemble.

Image by ZMorph3D from Pixabay

This example serves to show the dynamic that 3D printing systems generate. On the one hand, traditional materials handling goes away, while the need to move new, printing-related materials is introduced. The question is, how scenarios such as the one above, will affect the shipping industry as a whole?

The technology is disruptive, but not in the sense that it will negatively impact everything. 3D printing will eliminate some traditional practices, but it will also introduce new opportunities

The Impact on Shipping and Transportation

Generally, shipping and logistics are about moving goods from one place to another. What that process entails is a lot more complicated, obviously, but the idea is that the industry exists to transport materials, goods, products and even sometimes people across the world.

Because 3D printing technology allows for local manufacturing, it means that many parties and processes reliant on shipping in the past will no longer need it, at least not for the same purpose. A retailer, for example, that has long sourced products from outside their local area, may employ 3D printers to manufacture the products in-house. That puts those same products closer to consumers, meaning they might no longer need the support of logistics and shipping providers, again at least not in the same capacity.

But those same retailers will still need to acquire the printing materials from somewhere. Also, if the goods are being sent to consumers or clients outside their local area, shipment providers will still be necessary but the routes may vary. So the trade flow may change for some goods. 

The technology will also have an impact closer to home, introducing new opportunities for shipping and logistics providers. Instead of sourcing packaging or proprietary containers externally, these things can be created with more precise design specifications in mind.

Image by olafpictures from Pixabay

Millions of tonnes of shipping is dry and liquid bulk goods and things such as foodstuffs, this is not expected to be impacted by 3D printing. Likewise flows of petroleum, chemicals and large manufactured goods (cranes, marine engines) will also not be affected. In places where entire manufacturing ecosystems produce goods in one particular area, we would expect 3D printing to move there rather than to affect the location of production. In most manufactured goods 3D printing, even at its most successful, is just one component of a more complex combination infrastructure and historical accident. Boeing may use a lot of 3D printing but will not leave Seattle because of it, neither is Toyota likely to move a plant. Instead, outsized effects on specific industries where 3D printing would produce the entire finished good would be impacted.

Will Every Facet of Industry Change?

Traditional manufacturing is not going away anytime soon and probably never will. There will always be certain products and goods created sans additive strategies, these instances won’t even impact the logistics field. The technology will mainly be used to create highly complex or highly personalized items on a relatively small scale. Think on-demand printing for mass customization yet mass-produced goods. If we consider these goods then individual impacts on some industries will have outsized effects while others would have negligible ones. 3D printing, for example, dominates the custom hearing aid market, this has no measurable effect on container shipping worldwide. If 3D printing shoes in Europe and the United States becomes commonplace however the whole shoe supply chain may change. For cars, if 3D printing were deployed worldwide it would be deployed where cars would already be produced, not affecting trade flows. For cars and similar products market access, politics and taxes would dictate where they are produced and these would be more fundamental effects than the manufacturing technologies themselves. For other things, companies may source supplies for printing locally, for instance, instead of acquiring products and raw materials from overseas for many defense goods for example but it may not even be possible for many other products. If a mass customized 3D printed good which has large shipping volume occurs this will shift the demand for shipping and logistics in a new direction. For some goods such as orthopedic implants 3D printing is very likely to have a high impact on their production. However, regulatory requirements would have much more of an impact on where these items are to be produced. At the moment it seems that sneakers are the product where the economics and regulatory issues are such that when combined with the amount of value that is created through the 3D printing step could see an outsized impact. For sneakers, the entire supply chain could shift close to the consumer. It is, however, difficult to predict now what other mass customized 3D printed goods will be successful in the future. 

3D printing is a game-changer in many ways, and there’s no question that there will be some impact on the shipping industry as a whole. Logistics providers will have to prepare for the areas where things are going to change, which means like it or not, they’ll have to embrace the new opportunities and uncertainty presented.

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