The View with Lou: An unexpected gift


This is the time of year when we try to take a breather from the rapid pace of our business lives and pause long enough to glimpse into the future. Usually we look just a year ahead at how the economy will shape up, what new regulations we will be expected to deal with, etc. I would like to take a longer look—about a decade or two into the future and a technological development that could reshape transportation as we know it.

Everyone involved in the transport of freight should mark Sept. 13, 2014 as an important date on their calendar. Looking back on this date two decades from now we may identify it as a significant turning point in the freight patterns upon which our industry has been fashioned.

History was made September 13th when the world’s first 3D-printed car was driven out of The International Manufacturing Technology Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, Ill. Called the Strati, the vehicle was 3D printed over 45 hours by Local Motors in one piece, using direct digital manufacturing, (DDM), which is the first time this method has been used to make a car. Local Motors plans to launch production-level 3D-printed vehicles that will be available to the general public for purchase in the months following the show.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also called, has the potential to change the face of manufacturing and along with that the transportation and logistics practices of the future.

A recent Eye for Transport survey of manufacturers found that nearly 20% are already using 3D printing while more than 15% are currently evaluating it. A survey of logistics providers found that 37% now view it as a business opportunity while almost the same amount view it as both an opportunity and a threat. More than 40% believed it would have a moderate to substantial impact on the logistics services they provide just in the next three years.

Using 3D printing technology, along with a blueprint on a computer, a solid object can be built up gradually from a series of layers—each one printed directly on top of the previous one. The raw material used is a powder, which can be a metal, plastic, aluminium, stainless steel, etc., or a combination of these. The object—a spare part for a car, a hearing aid, a bicycle frame—is built by either depositing material from a nozzle or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam. I saw just such a machine at work myself at Bridgestone’s US headquarters.

What’s important for those of us concerned about supply chain practices is that it changes the parameters upon which those practices are set. The traditional supply chain is typically about warehousing mass produced products and shifting them outwards from the point of manufacture. What 3D printing does is make customization of (admittedly smaller products) feasible and economical on a local scale at microfactories. As Ed Morris, director of the US-based National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute points out: “In terms of impact on inventory and logistics, you can print on demand. Meaning you don’t have to have the finished product stacked on shelves or stacked in warehouses anymore. Whenever you need a product, you just make it. And that collapses the supply chain down to its simplest parts.”

And although that doesn’t mean that large scale mass production will die out, it does mean there will be increasing amounts of localized production, leading to more local or regional deliveries.

More local or regional deliveries due to 3D printing will build on the growth of such deliveries already started by online shopping. For a trucking industry plagued by a shortage of drivers willing to run long haul and be away from family for long stretches of time, this trend towards shorter, more regional runs could prove the holiday gift it has never been able to deliver itself

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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