3D Printing & Cargo: Threat or opportunity?

Many people still think of 3D printing (3DP) as a toy for the “maker” geeks crowd. Today, that toy status of 3DP is official. Mattel recently introduced a 3D printer for kids called the ThingMaker, which runs on cuttingedge 3D design and printing technology from Autodesk, the same company that brought the world AutoCAD.

The Autodesk/Mattel collaboration will provide kids of all ages with a new, immersive experience by combining beloved physical toys with digital adventures. ThingMaker is fun, but it is also serious – it’s a training tool to prepare today’s kids for tomorrow’s essential tech skills. For over the next few decades, the technology is expected to transform the manufacturing sector as we know it today.

By the time these ThingMaker kids are adults, some of them may be operating more advanced 3DPs to build everything from custom-made replacement auto parts to space station components to new human organs whenever they’re needed, wherever they’re needed. What today takes aircraft to fly half-way around the world in less than a day, this technology might be able to do with the click of a mouse in seconds.

Because of its potential for on-demand, custom-made manufacturing capabilities, 3DP technology, to some in the airfreight business, represents a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening disruptive changes for the logistics status quo. There is no question that changes will occur – what is difficult to predict is the scale of the disruption, the forms it will take, and the timeline for the full impact to be felt.

Some say it’s already here. Digital disruption is “everywhere but operating at different speeds,” said Angus Dawson, who leads McKinsey & Co.’s Strategy and Corporate Finance Practice across Asia. “The fact that disruption is happening at different speeds for different industries shouldn’t lead those industries where it’s happening slower to assume it’s not happening.”

The full potential impact of 3DP is still a flyspeck on the radar screens of the global logistics community – most executives and managers know a little about the technology but are not aware that it represents a disruptive game changer to their business models.

“I think it’s difficult to say how it will play out in the long run,” said Thomas Bek, global manager of oil, gas and industrial projects at Blue Water Shipping, a global heavy-lift logistics and transport services provider. “We use a lot of 3D visualization to plan our equipment moves, and are about to use 3D-printed ship and equipment models for a large, complex move, but the long-term implications of 3D printing technology are something we have not really focused on.”

Blue Water is not the only logistics services provider that is late to the gate regarding 3DP. “I know a little about the technology,” said logistics consultant Skip Grindall, who recently retired from his position as vice president of mining logistics at C.H. Robinson. “But the implications of 3D printing for the logistics industry is not something I can recall ever being discussed as a potential game-changer.”

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