One 3-D printer at a time, shipping and delivery is shifting to on-demand.

Having already roiled the engineering and design fields, the technology is now poised to reshape distribution, with two major developments last week adding fuel to the change.

On Wednesday, shipping giant UPS and software business SAP said they would collaborate to produce and transport 3-D-printed orders to commercial clients in as little as a day. On Tuesday, technology company HP Inc. revealed what it called the world’s first large-scale commercial 3-D printing system, tested by companies such as BMW and Nike.

Future projects could spur an evolution in how factories, warehouses and delivery services operate.

“You could see some fairly massive changes to the world’s supply chain if this were to really pick up momentum,” said John G. Larkin, a logistics analyst at Stifel Financial Corp.

Additive manufacturing, as 3-D printing is also known, stacks layers of metal, plastic or mixed materials to fit a digital blueprint. In a single sitting, printers can craft customized items that would otherwise need to be designed, sourced, fabricated, transported, assembled and delivered in separate steps.

There’s less need to transport components and materials if the line from design to finished good is short and straight, Larkin said. In theory, the entire supply chain shrinks.

Manufacturers and distribution centers wouldn’t need to produce or stockpile extra inventory to buffer against unpredictable demand, shifting instead to a just-in-time process that meets orders precisely.

3-D printing could threaten 41 percent of air cargo, 37 percent of ocean container and 25 percent of trucking freight business, according to a report last year from consulting firm Strategy&.

“You’re not necessarily moving around raw product and converting it to a finished item in Asia, sending it on a vessel to the Los Angeles or Long Beach port, running it in a container over to Chicago, dragging it to a Walmart distribution center in Columbus, Ohio, and then putting it on a truck to its final destination,” Larkin said.

3-D printing is likely still decades away from critical mass. The technology is too expensive for mass production and is better suited for prototyping or small-batch, specialized manufacturing.

But innovations such as HP’s new Multi Jet Fusion technology – which claims to produce parts up to 10 times faster than and at half the cost of existing programs – could allow for much heavier industrial production.

3-D printed parts

3-D printed, machined, and injection molded parts. (Photo: UPS)

Two-thirds of manufacturers surveyed recently by PricewaterhouseCoopers said they’re adopting 3-D printing technology – some experimentally, others to test out new products or manufacture goods for sale.

During Paris Fashion Week in October, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen used the technology to build a garment for “Game of Thrones” actress Gwendoline Christie. In 2015, Phoenix-based start-up Local Motors printed an entire electric car – dubbed the Strati, which means “layers” in Italian – in just a few days on the floor of the Detroit Auto Show.

Let’s say, to borrow an example from a recent PwC report, that a homeowner needs a spare part for an outdated dishwasher. With 3-D printing, the customer could order the part online from the manufacturer and receive a bar code to have the cog produced at a neighborhood printing center.

“We’re going to end up with more local delivery of smaller product and lots of small vehicles replacing larger trucks hauling massive containers from port to port,” said Phil Reeves, vice president of strategic consulting with 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys. “If you’re having things made individually for you, you change the whole supply chain.”

Analysts envision a database of 3-D designs shared globally by parts producers and logistics providers and linked to a network of local 3-D printing facilities.

For more than a year, UPS has allowed lightweight 3D printing in more than 60 of its retail stores as well as more intense industrial production via some 100 machines run by 3D parts manufacturer Fast Radius in Louisville, Ky.

But now, UPS is linking all of those printers together and also to SAP software that can discern which customer orders should be 3D-printed or pulled from inventory. Orders set for printing can be diverted to either a Fast Radius machine or a UPS Store printer depending on speed, geography and quality requirements. UPS will deliver the final product.

 Fast Radius employee monitors 3D printing machine for UPS

Fast Radius employee monitors 3D printing machine for UPS. (Photo: UPS)

Companies such as Shapeways and 3D Systems’ QuickParts also enable users to print and receive their own designs. And there’s 3D Hubs, a social network-sharing economy of 3-D printer owners who accept print jobs from nearby users.

In New York, where the marketplace boasts 3,874 users and 495 printers, an entrepreneur in Columbus Circle can send a request to a machine owner in Soho, pay with PayPal and then hop on the subway to pick up the prototype.

This kind of hyper-personalization could actually boost single-item shipping. At UPS, 3-D printed items are a minor but fast-growing portion of shipping volume, according to Derrick Johnson, vice president of customer segment marketing.

“The technology allows production closer to the time and point of consumption,” Johnson said.

Amazon, meanwhile, has wanted to blend manufacturing and logistics for years. The e-tailing giant has a U.S. patent on mobile 3-D-printing hubs housed on delivery vehicles.

By producing items while delivering them, Amazon hopes to sidestep some real estate and transportation costs, as well as the “challenge of time delays” that “may reduce customer satisfaction and affect revenues generated,” according to the filing.

To many distribution companies, 3-D printing still seems like a far-off science fiction bogeyman. Times are good – fuel is cheap and demand is high and rising.

Analysts, though, think changes will come sooner rather than later.

3-D printing’s made-to-order nature could prompt customers to work directly with manufacturers, cutting out wholesalers and other middlemen – including a major chunk of the transport network.

Complicated global logistics networks revolving around a few primary mass-production hubs could become more decentralized. Manufacturers may opt for so-called microfactories – 3-D printers situated in small facilities near major markets.  

This is most likely to happen with products such as footwear, toys, ceramics, electronics and plastics, which are relatively easy to 3-D-print and expensive to transport, according to the Strategy & report.

“We’ll still have that final stage in the delivery process, but the distances will be much shorter,” Reeves said. “It tips the current supply chain on its head.” 

Ultimately, 3-D printers could embed sensors, codes and other technology into the components they produce, making delivery more secure and traceable.

And if 3-D printers become affordable enough for the average consumer to own, the logistics industry could shift away from finished products toward storage and home delivery of raw materials to feed the machines.

But intellectual property rights and copyright infringement issues around 3-D designs could become a stumbling block, especially as the boundaries blur between manufacturing and distribution.

Such issues – and their implications for delivery – will only become thornier as 3-D printing develops, according to a report this year from logistics giant DHL.

“It may sound far-fetched,” the researchers wrote, “but 3-D printing could impact goods transportation in much the same way as email impacted letters.”

About The Author

Tiffany Hsu

Tiffany Hsu is a Manhattan-based journalist and former Trucks.com contributing editor. Hsu now works for the New York Times. She can be found on Twitter: @tiffkhsu.