“Beam Me Up, Scotty”

Outside the Box

photograph by Stocksnapper | Dreamstime.com

So said Star Trek’s Captain Kirk when he wanted to make a quick trip between the starship Enterprise and a nearby planet. When you think about this logically, it sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? But maybe it’s not … .

What if I could design a product in Memphis and have it appear on the desk of a user in Shanghai without the use of traditional transportation methods?

Recently, the concept of 3D printing has been getting an increasing amount of discussion in various trade journals. Frankly, when I first heard of it, I just assumed it was the ability to print a 3D picture which could be viewed without the goofy glasses. But it is much more than that. As many of our readers will already know, this technique, also called additive manufacturing, allows the use of computer-aided design (CAD) in developing renderings which can be transmitted to a 3D “printer” which will “print” or construct the solid object.

Currently, 3D printers are relatively slow and don’t lend themselves to mass production. When manufacturing large quantities of polymer products for example, techniques such as injection molding can be faster and cheaper. But when only a few are needed, you can print them right at your desk or somewhere else halfway around the world. And, as research and experiments continue, this very well could change.

While this is a proven process, it is still a long way from everyday use. Right now, other than researchers and experimental users, most proponents seem to be hobbyists and enthusiasts who use the machines almost as toys to make clever little odds and ends. Usage has increased however, as the cost of printers has decreased dramatically. A printer that used to cost $20,000 can now be purchased for $1,000 to $2,000. Even so, it will no doubt be a while before this technology sees widespread acceptance.

3D printing is an example of what one writer has called “creative destruction.” In many instances we have seen innovative new products become an acceptable or more desirable substitute for widely accepted current or legacy products. Have you tried to buy a typewriter lately? Or, consider Amazon.com. Look at what its Kindle and other manufacturers’ tablet readers have done to revolutionize reading. Owning a bookstore today probably is not every entrepreneur’s dream. The USPS probably would not be in the financial spiral it is in today were it not for computers and email. Who would have thought?

It is not at all unrealistic to think that someday in the not too distant future, 3D printing might be a significant part of our lives. And, if so, what impact will this “creative destruction” have on the supply chain? In the United States, we spend about $806 billion annually on transportation. What if some products no longer required “transportation” in the context we understand it today? Think about the impact on service and cost of goods from offshore if they did not spend weeks in transit over the high seas or incur high air freight costs.

What if there was no need to carry expensive inventories since products could be “printed” on demand? There are many products that will always have to undergo the conventional manufacturing process and require basic forms of transportation, but think about what the ability to print small quantities of small items could have on the parcel shipment business. If you let your imagination run loose just a little bit, however, you can envision any number of supply chain impacts. The technology is here. All we have to do is find a way to harness it efficiently.

In 1913, a U.S. District Attorney began prosecution of radio pioneer Lee DeForest for mail fraud. He said, “Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company.”

Maybe Star Trek wasn’t as farfetched as we thought.


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