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New dimension

March 15, 2013

Of all the new technologies that have emerged in recent years, 3D printing has to be one of the most remarkable. Just a quick surf on the internet and the mind boggles at the limitless array of things that the current generation of 3D printers can do.

Nearly everything you can think of, from replacement dentures and aeronautic parts, to full-colour replicas of human heads, can now be reproduced in almost any material imaginable, from wood to high-grade steel. Scientists have even ‘printed’ a human vein.

At first glance, the potential is enormous and many believe that we are on the brink of a manufacturing revolution. In a recent paper examining 3D printing’s future impact on global logistics, research organisation Transport Intelligence says it could become “the biggest single disruptive phenomenon to impact the global industry since assembly lines were introduced in early 20th century America”.

If this proves the case, the implications for the postal industry are significant. If you go along with the hype – and it’s hard not to when you see what these machines can do – then it’s easy to envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when, thanks to 3D printing, mass production as we know it ceases to exist.

Instead of having your latest consumer durable – be it an iPhone case or a Star Wars toy – made in Asia and shipped over, you will be able to download the product you want from the internet and print it yourself. Add to this the fact that 3D printers are now retailing for as little as £300 and you start to find yourself getting a little nostalgic for good old globalisation.

If 3D printing takes off, then manufacturing, and consequently global logistics, will be transformed. If products can be made in the home or else locally at high-street stores that offer 3D print services, then it’s obvious that postal companies could find themselves out of business unless they find ways to adapt to the new paradigm. Aware of the potential impact, postal companies have been keeping an eye on the technology – 3D printing was one of the possible trends highlighted in a recent Deutsche Post DHL study.

Sabine Hartmann, a spokesperson for Deutsche Post DHL, says that the company has been analysing 3D printing for quite some time. “We believe that 3D printing will become an important technology for certain production cycles,” she explains. “According to a study by research group Gartner, 3D printing has reached a peak of inflated expectations. However, we will continue to follow its further development
and implications.”

If Deutsche Post sounds a touch phlegmatic, that’s probably because there are still major hurdles to overcome before the technology goes large scale. “Unless there’s a hidden efficiency that’s yet to be discovered, there’s no good economic argument for switching to 3D printing right now,” explains Alastair McAulay, an IT expert from PA Consulting Group, a consultancy that follows trends in global IT. “The bulk of products we get in our lives today are more suited to traditional manufacturing.”

Left: 3D printing is being used to produce models that assist learning in the medical industry. Images courtesy of Stratasys

 

 

Barriers to entry
Also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, 3D printing works by adding extremely fine layers of a material on top of one another from a digital model to create a three-dimensional object. The layers are attached to one another by a resin, and in the case of some highly specialised printers, lasers bind the layers. Printing usually takes place in a bed of powder, and during the process raw materials such as wood, rubber, metal and plastics can be used in combination with one another to achieve spectacular results.

Right now, the process is slow and expensive. Printers cost upwards of five figures and the raw materials are not cheap. The prohibitive cost means most commercial use is in high-end, niche markets. The possibility for total customisation means that 3D printers have become a popular tool among design companies to create prototypes of new products. Since 3D printing is an additive rather than a subtractive process – like most current manufacturing – it has also become popular in industries where raw material costs are high, such as in aerospace manufacturing and the production of jewellery. The technology is also used in dentistry to create moulds for replacement teeth.

The printers that retail for under £1,000 use thermoplastics, but the results are less than perfect and it’s often possible to see the layers. The printing can take hours and there’s the added problem that downloading the 3D models used to create the prints demands prior knowledge of sophisticated software such as CAD (computer aided design).

 

Right: The high cost of 3D printers means most commercial use is in high-end, niche markets. Images courtesy of Stratasys

 

 

Chris Barnatt, a futurist and Associate Professor of Computing and Future Studies at Nottingham University, who is currently writing a book about 3D printing technology, says these difficulties can be overcome but it will take time.

“The cost will come down, but it’s unlikely to reach a level where it competes with the current global production cycle any time soon,” he says. “That’s only likely to happen when dwindling oil resources means the cost of transporting goods from abroad gets so high it becomes economic to near-source manufacturing closer to the client.”

Barnatt says there had been a lot of spin around home 3D printers, but in the short- to medium-term “the big change we’ll see is in the high street and in e-commerce”.

Customisation
According to Barnatt, the most significant growth in 3D printing will come via the demand for one-off customised items. The machines’ ability to reproduce almost any design makes them ideal for customisation and a large array of online companies are already taking advantage of this. Japanese outfit The Clone Factory, for example, gives customers the chance to see their own head printed in miniature and fitted on top of an action figure, while companies such as Bespoke Innovations create tailor-made prosthetic limbs that exactly mirror the contours of the wearer’s body.

There are also signs that the high street is getting involved in 3D printing. US office supplies giant Staples has recently installed 3D printers at its chain of stores in the Netherlands. The printers, which are being supplied by the Irish firm Mcor, create 3D models from layers of paper.

“As far as this growth in customisation goes, postal companies should really see this as an opportunity,” says Barnatt, who also runs the future technologies website ExplainingTheFuture.com. “If more people source one-off items online, this can only have a positive impact on deliveries.”

 

Postal opportunities
PA Consulting Group’s McAulay believes the biggest potential market for 3D printing in the next few years is the spare parts service industry. He says it’s a market that postal companies are in a unique position to tap into: “There’s a real opportunity for postal companies that set up a 3D printing capability to manufacture spare parts. You can already see the cost case. Right now there’s a lot of wastage. The new hose clamp for my dishwasher is chewing up space in a factory somewhere. If postal companies took on that manufacturing themselves, they could make my new hose clamp on demand and deliver it to me. Manufacturers could strip away the problem and give it to the postal companies and you could free-up large volumes of warehouse space at the same time.”

If postal organisations begin investing in the technology soon, they could put themselves in the driving seat for when 3D printing goes large scale. Since the majority of consumers are unlikely to have the resources to 3D print at home, postal companies could win business by offering this service locally for them. This would also provide a way of leveraging their capital and their own technological capabilities.

“I don’t think it’s viable that 3D printing will make a big impact on the home,” says McAulay. “The complexity of even relatively mundane household objects shouldn’t be overstated. Something as simple as a pen is made of multiple materials and moving parts. The kind of printers capable of making pens are extremely expensive. This, coupled with the cost of the raw materials, puts it way beyond the budget of most households. 

“This would put the manufacturing in the hands of the specialists,” he continues. “Here again is where the postal companies can take the lead. You can imagine a future scenario where posts’ own regional printing centres supplying goods locally. The flexibility of 3D printing and the proximity to their customer base would mean production could be quick and exactly tailored to market demand.”

Revolutionary times
Ken Lyon, who co-authored the Transport Intelligence report, believes the 3D printing revolution is closer at hand than we think. He says 3D printing will transform manufacturing within our lifetimes. He also says that certain current trends in manufacturing, such as the focus on high-volume short-production runs with increasing customisation used by high street clothing brands such as Uniqlo and Zara, are already anticipating the changes to come. “Mass production as most people understand it now, will probably cease in many industries, replaced by rapid customisation and production,” Lyon says.

The Transport Intelligence report envisions the post-3D printing revolution logistics firm as something resembling a service management company, its business comprising the delivery of raw materials and new parts to the printers, as well as a mix of software development, partner relationship management, contract management and brainpower.

The postal companies themselves are more circumspect about what the future holds. Deutsche Post DHL’s Hartmann says the technology’s impact will depend on future advances with 3D printers and how the customers ultimately choose to interact with them. “You always have to monitor new trends and developments, but that does not mean you have to jump to conclusions,” she says. “If there’s a value to add for DHL’s customers, we’ll be able to set up appropriate solutions.”

March 15, 2013

 

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