Is 3D Printing the Future of Logistics for UPS?

2013-08-03 11.14.40
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This week, The UPS Store announced that it would be the first nationwide retailer to test 3D printing services in-store. According to the press release, “Select UPS Store locations will be offering the services to start-ups, small businesses and retail customers, beginning in the San Diego area with locations in additional cities across the United States in the near future.” The UPS Store has 4,300 franchised locations in the USA, mostly located in retail centers.

According to a study conducted by The UPS Store, small business owners showed “high interest” in using 3D printing services to create prototypes, artistic renderings, and promotional materials. To meet that need The UPS Store will offer in-house 3D design services and 3D printing in-store. They’ll start producing jobs in plastic on equipment provided by Stratasys, but if history is any guide (think digital printing) and the test of the service is successful, it’s possible they would expand their production capability to other substrates, build sizes, and finishing options.

While the press release states that The UPS Store will be the first nationwide retailer to test 3D printing, it also means that UPS will be the first major shipping company to adopt the technology – and the implications for that part of the company’s business could be profound. Think for a moment about the impact document faxing, scanning, desktop publishing and other digital technologies had on the US Postal Service. While the USPS largely ignored those innovations, companies like Mail Boxes, Etc. (The UPS Store’s predecessor) embraced them, offering those services in-store. Could 3D printing have a similar impact on the shipment of things? If so, UPS seems determined not to repeat the mistakes of the postal service.

A railroad or a transportation company?

Yes, you read that correctly. I just compared the digitization of print with the digitization of things. UPS makes billions of dollars each year shipping items from point A to point B. Items are picked up, sent to a distribution center, organized by zone, delivered to another distribution center, and eventually delivered to the recipient. Imagine how much time and cost could be extracted if those items were digitized and sent electronically to a local UPS Store, or directly to the recipient.

3D Design, 3D Scanning, and 3D Printing = Digital Manufacturing

Like print before it, we’re capable of digitizing some things now, and the technology continues to improve. The vast majority of the items in our life don’t have a digital equivalent (there is no digital file available for the coaster sitting on my desk) but that could soon change. Much work is being done in the area of 3D scanning. What used to be an incredibly expensive technology requiring high-end equipment is quickly being disrupted. Also announced this week, the Fuel3D scanner, currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, is being billed as “the world’s first handheld point-and-shoot, full color 3D scanner available for under $1,000.” Yet another current project on Kickstarter proposes to enable 3D scanning via a Kinect-style depth camera (available for as little as $200) and a web browser.

3D design software is also improving and getting less expensive. Just this week my 13 year-old daughter created her first 3D printable file using TinkerCAD. She’s part of a project called The Maker Girls and her first assignment was to design a house in the browser-based (and free) software. She completed the tutorial, finished her project, and submitted it for printing in less than four hours.

As 3D scanning and 3D design software improves and become more accessible, more content will be created. While there are questions about the quality of 3D printing and 3D printers certainly have their limitations, it seems new use cases are announced every day. The machines UPS is testing may only print simple plastic parts, but how many of those alone are subject to the traditional supply chain where items are created, prototyped, mass produced, packaged, shipped, inventoried, and shipped again?

UPS’ slogan is We [heart] logistics. Logistics include that critical part of the supply chain that puts product in the hands of consumers. For brick-n-mortar retailers this means getting products to stores – where consumers go to make their purchases. For eCommerce retailers, it’s about delivering purchases directly to the consumer. When products can be manufactured digitally, much of the supply chain erodes. Products can simply be “printed” on demand, either in-store for pick-up or delivery.

Sometimes consumers will want to manufacture their own products at home, and a recent study suggests that they could save $2,000 per year by doing so. But, in other cases and for other reasons, they’ll want to print elsewhere. With 4,300 stores and a huge delivery infrastructure, it seems UPS is one of a few companies uniquely positioned to capitalize on both the pick-up and delivery parts of the equation. By making the move now, UPS is building the infrastructure that will drive adoption of 3D printing among consumers in the near-term, while protecting its relevancy in the longer-term.

3DLT.com provides content – 3D printable files that consumers can print at home, in-store, and online. We partner with some of the world’s top 3D designers, animators, and engineers who supply the files we sell. As the availability of 3D printing continues to grow, we’re uniquely positioned to provide the 3D designs consumers will want and need. We’re excited by The UPS Store’s announcement and look forward to their success as it will make 3D printing even more accessible to our customers. To see our full catalog of 3D printable designs, visit 3DLT.com today.

author avatar

John is 3DLT's Chief Executive Officer. Working mainly in the print, eCommerce, and retail industries, he has nearly 25 years of sales, marketing, and technology experience. John has launched and managed several B2B and B2C websites. In 2012 he co-founded 3DLT, connecting the designers, consumers and producers of 3D printing. 3DLT sells direct and works with retailers, helping them build 3D printing service offerings online and in-store.

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