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Shifting transport paradigms

Understanding the implications of 3D printing on the global transportation industry

3D printing is a hot topic in many industries and a source of uncertainty. From the perspective of transportation providers, however, if just one industry – or even a small portion of many industries –embrace 3D printing, it could have profound impacts on size and shape of demand for transportation services.

A 3D printing-based production process circumvents many of the challenges and limitations of traditional manufacturing, especially those that lead to trade-offs between production and design and between production and transport. While 3D printers cannot make every imaginable product, the inventory of what can be produced is astonishing. 3D-printed products include those made from materials as diverse as plastic, metal and human tissue, and as complex as replacement joints, consumer clothing and engine parts. The number and complexity of products continues to grow rapidly.

Of course, 3D printing it not on a clear trajectory to overturn the decades of development and investment in traditional manufacturing and the robust supply chains that support it; there are significant impediments that must be overcome before its future will be secured.

The existing supply chain, with all its inefficiencies, is deeply entrenched. More important, 3D printing production, while more efficient and straightforward in theory, is not yet supported by its own supply chain. This gap may actually be an opportunity for transport providers, which can play a vital role in positioning inputs and products where they are needed in a 3D printing-centric supply chain.

cost of 3D printers

The pillars of modern consumption, design, production, transport, selection and final delivery, are inexorably linked. The practical constraints inherent in each step in this chain of activities are inherited by the entire process. For this reason, beautifully designed plans that cannot be built are about as commercially useful as masterfully crafted prod-ucts that cannot be not delivered. This fact gives rise to the demand for transportation services of all sorts — for moving raw materials, transporting intermediate goods and parts, and, of course, for delivering finished goods to wholesales, retailers and consumers who buy them.

Another more subtle consequence of this deep interdepen-dence is that radical leaps forward in any one of these pillars have the potential to dramatically impact the others and change the way the whole system of consumption works. On its face, 3D printing could change the funda-mentals of modern consumption and alter the role trans-portation companies play within it.

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Meet the author

Steve Peterson, Global Travel and Transportation Leader, IBM Institute for Business Value