Could airports be the next hubs for disruptive 3D printing? 

Is manufacturing really slowing down or is it undergoing a transformation that can not yet be measured by traditional means? Robotics, drones, augmented reality and other technologies are transforming manufacturing in such a way not seen since the Industrial Revolution. But, in my opinion, one of the most disruptive forces is 3D printing. Not only could it disrupt the actual manufacturing process, but also manufacturing’s supply chain requirements with respect to inventory and transportation.  

3D printing hubs, if strategically located, could speed up delivery times and improve efficiencies while bypassing various political risks and trade barriers. Some stakeholders are already experimenting with the use of this technology, and airports may present an attractive hub for the technology given their position and connectivity to various supply chains. 

Many manufacturers including Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Boeing and Airbus have embraced 3D printing for years, often printing prototypes and hard to locate parts. Logistics and transportation providers including DB Schenker and UPS have also embraced 3D printing with DB Schenker, for example, offering customers the ability to upload their 3D templates, choose the material and color, view prices, order printing and arrange delivery. DB Schenker utilizes a partner network of startups and established firms for 3D printing and then DB Schenker delivers the items.  

In a similar move, UPS created a 3D printing service bureau at its UPS Supply Chain Solutions facility in Louisville, Kentucky. In partnership with manufacturer Fast Radius, UPS prints and ship orders overnight, depending on the size and production run.  

Airports also seem a likely benefactor of 3D printing and indeed, Pittsburgh International Airport recently (PIT) announced its Neighborhood 91 concept, “the world’s first development to condense and connect all components of the additive manufacturing/3D printing supply chain into one powerful production neighborhood concept.   

The Pittsburgh facility will house a complete end-to-end ecosystem offering powder, parts, post-production, testing and analysis, as well as communal powder storage facilities. This ecosystem will include benefits such as: 

  • Efficiencies in production/post-production and delivery; 
  • Reduced transportation costs; 
  • Airport access; and 
  • Access to argon, helium and other noble gases, which are essential elements of additive manufacturing, reaching up to 60% of additive manufacturing costs. 

Officials at the airport estimate that manufacturing lead times will shrink by 80% and transportation costs will shrink by even more as a result, according to the airport. Not to mention reducing inventory costs as well. 

As 3D printing matures, airports could in fact hasten the end of global trade and lead the charge for regional supply chains by implementing 3Dprinting hubs. While ports initially led the 3D printing charge, at best, they could perhaps offer ‘floating manufacturing facilities’ by installing 3D printers on ships to produce goods enroute to destinations. But why bother when this can be done closer to customers, i.e., airports? Imagine no customs costs, better management of parts and faster delivery times. 

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Cathy Roberson

Cathy Morrow Roberson is an analyst with deep experience across the transportation and logistics business. Cathy is the founder of Logistics Trends & Insights, which provides strategic supply chain research and analysis. She also writes a weekly column for Air Cargo World. Previously she worked for a logistics research firm, an internet consultancy and UPS Supply Chain solutions. At UPS she was instrumental in the initial set up of UPS Supply Chain Solutions, as well as its further development. Cathy began her career as a librarian, primarily managing research departments for several libraries. Her experience spans projects that cover product development, market analysis, customer service, M&A due diligence, freight forwarding operations and has in depth knowledge of the global freight forwarding, logistics, technology and e-commerce markets. She is also active in the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) Cathy has a BA in History from Winthrop University, a Masters in Library Science from the University of South Carolina and an MBA in finance and marketing from Mercer University.