Airfreight must avoid another ZapMail

To understand the future of 3D printing, you only need to know the story of ZapMail.

In 1984, Federal Express introduced a service called ZapMail, which guaranteed delivery of a document anywhere within two hours. This was done not with faster planes but by using fax machines communicating in a closed network owned by the company.

The special fax machines were placed in FedEx offices throughout the country and company couriers, as promised, delivered transmitted documents within hours.  The ultimate vision included a delivery system that needed no costly planes or expensive pilots and fewer couriers. Everything went well for a brief period until customers got wise and bought their own fax machines, negating the need for ZapMail.

CEO Fred Smith’s ZapMail idea flopped and in 1986, after two years and $320 million down the drain, the service was stopped. Smith has experienced failures but his numerous successes far outnumber them and he still runs one of the most successful transportation companies of our time.

The biggest mistake FedEx made with ZapMail was underestimating the customer’s ability to inexpensively secure technology that could send and receive documents faster and cheaper. ZapMail failed because common sense and the power of the consumer were ignored. Could the airfreight industry be making a similar error again with 3D printing?

Using machines that resemble printers in a futuristic science-fiction movie and with the aid of computer digital files, three-dimensional products are made layer by layer using material to build an exact copy of the design. The technology was developed in the 1980s and is beginning to appear on the mass market. As with fax machines, prices started high but are dropping by the day. Perhaps manufacturers see the profit in the consumable material but regardless, the industry is developing at an energy-zapping pace.

So what can a 3D printer really make? Let’s start with small failed machinery parts. Instead of waiting for airfreight to deliver replacements from across the globe, a design downloaded from the Internet and reproduced in minutes with 3D has the broken machine working again quickly.

A recent story on National Public Radio began with the sound of a gun firing in the background as the reporter spoke. Not an unusual occurrence except that all of the gun’s components had been produced with the aid of a 3D printing device. This does not bode well for gun control advocates, but what about the air cargo industry?

Items reproduced on a 3D printer are from the same pool in which the express air cargo industry thrives.  Small, valuable, time-sensitive shipments that need to be expedited quickly create a market that keeps airplane bellies and freighters full. Could our industry be ignoring the ability of the consumer to inexpensively purchase and replace their airfreight using these devices?

Experts call 3D a disruptive technology similar to cell phones, fax machines and computers. The output may not be perfect since items produced will probably need finishing and high production rates are impractical at this point since speed can be an issue. But we all know that nature abhors a vacuum so it is only a matter of time before these challenges are remedied.

The material used for 3D printing is mostly comprised of plastic resin but stronger, more versatile compounds are being developed for sturdier, more versatile products. The technology is progressing with new revolutionary innovations introduced daily.

3D printing will not put an end to supply chains but will definitely redefine where goods come from, maybe negating the need for sourcing shipments from far away. Globalization of manufactured products may fall out of favor, preferring those within the immediate region. This will certainly have a long-term impact on airfreight, as smaller, more profitable express consignments become a scarcity. Manufacturing has long chased “Just in Time” parts but may soon emphasize a shift to “Print as Needed.” If ignored, 3D printing could relegate air cargo to a support role, delivering the consumable resins and machinery used to feed the beast.

Despite the excitement and uncertainty 3D printing produces, the technology generates an interesting trade issue as well. If plans for a printed item are produced outside of a country with the product printed within our borders and in our homes, what types of duties, if any, are assessed? Like a product purchased online, would the 3D printed product be considered an import if not brought through a traditional border crossing? Will our nation be able to collect trade duty on the item, and if not, what effect will this have on our country’s revenue as the technology matures?

3D printing is showing us that digital replication of products is now a reality and the devices are getting cheaper. The airfreight industry cannot afford another ZapMail mistake by misjudging the consumer’s ability to acquire the technology and use it to replace its value to the supply chain.

Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association.

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