The Twilight Zone: Why 3D printing will move deliveries into a new dimension

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David Jinks, head of consumer research at Fastlane International, believes 3D printing is the blueprint for future supply chains and a big step toward instant consumer gratification.

We are all worried about last-mile delivery, but perhaps not noticing that technology is moving on to last-inch delivery. 3D printing is more than the elephant in the room for traditional couriers and logistics firms, it’s a rogue bull elephant about to trample down much of the industry practices we take for granted today.

The process of 3D printing could be arriving on a large scale far sooner than many people think. So far, it’s a bit like RFID, a great idea, but no one’s really worked out what it’s really for on any scale. But that is about to change.

Already moderately small domestic printers have moved beyond producing novelty keyrings in plastics and resins. Items such as replacement parts, kitchen utensils and toys are easy to manufacture in household printers, and present near instant solutions for consumers who might be in urgent need of equipment or who are far from a delivery network. For example, NASA is using 3D printing to manufacture spare parts in space – too far even for a One Hour Prime Delivery.

You doubt that 3D printing really has a future? Consider these quotes from history:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” said Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad,” the president of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in Ford, 1903.

And “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” A memo at Western Union, 1878.

The first signs that 3D printing could be a burgeoning technology are that, already, small printers have moved beyond plastics and resins to produce items from steel and titanium that build up from fine strips.

And 3D printing is not just for small items that can be produced on a domestic 3D printer. We also expect 3D printing stores to spring up on our high street – in much the same way every street once had a photocopier shop.

The Institute of Operations Management – a sector of The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport – has also envisaged town center stores with printers larger than those that will be in the home, and which will be able to print a variety of products on demand: from larger car parts to garden ornaments.

It’s not hard to see such printers being used to produce bespoke clothes cheaply, and other tailor-made items. So how will the courier and delivery industries evolve to cope with this new upstart technology?

Such a move will have its upsides, reducing city center deliveries and therefore cutting congestion. But it will mean the supply chain model we follow today will have to be re-built from scratch.

By 2030, just 13 years’ time, we are likely to see 3D printing stores on our high street, as well as autonomous delivery droids and other vehicles fulfilling the final mile.

However, all is by no means lost for our industry: there will still be a great many products impossible to produce effectively by such machines. And 3D printers will need a whole new supply chain of their own to keep up with the demand for the raw materials they consume, probably delivered in fine strips; and to service the larger high street printing stores.

Meanwhile Amazon has upped the ante still further and quietly patented technology that will enable its Amazon Logistics trucks to print items en-route to customers. The courier will also become the manufacturer. It’s a technology that will certainly add an entirely new dimension to our industry.


David Jinks is head of consumer research for the online parcel broker Fastlane International. He appears regularly on national radio and in the national press discussing the impact of e-commerce, as well as topics such as the potential consequences of Brexit for exporters, and music festival logistics.

He also presents master classes and webinars for the UK government’s ‘Exporting is GREAT’ initiative. Jinks has more than 20 years’ experience as a transport journalist, and for many years was the publisher of The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport’s Logistics & Transport Focus magazine.

July 24, 2017

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