Is 3D Printing the End of Importing & Shipping As We Know It?


3D Printing seems to be the new hot topic in the news recently. First, I read an article about a company that managed to produce a gun made of metals through a 3D Printer and recently another company produced different size & types of candy which was a big surprise as the implications of this new technology seems endless & we may think of it as the next Industrial Revolution.3D Printing (also called addictive manufacturing) is basically producing three dimensional solid objects through a digital model. What makes it unique from traditional manufacturing is it does not rely on cutting or drilling (which are the subtractive process) but it involves layering of different materials on top of each other (additive process). One big advantage over traditional manufacturing is since it does not need any cutting or mashing, the labor is taken out of the equation and a designer along with a 3D Printer can produce identical products with precise end product. The technology dates back to 1980’s however the real breakthrough in applications and widespread use came in 2010’s. Currently, it is used in different industries like engineering, automotive, construction & architecture however the applications of this new technology seems endless. With the new advancements, in the near future, 3D printers may print organ parts as well. Another implication that I find it quite interesting is in the space industry. As we all know, shipping items to space is extremely expensive since the cost is calculated per pound so via 3D Printers that will be sent from Earth to different planets like Mars, it may be used to produce habitable places via using the raw materials of the planet thus decreasing the need for shipping items.

From the perspective of mass commodity producers of the world like China or India, these advancements are a threat since the cheap labor & old fashion production techniques can be easily replaced by a 3D printing machine. For example, an importer that imports general merchandise from Asia will find it much useful to purchase a 3D Printer that will enable his business to produce easy, mass products like coffee cups or pencils. Instead of ordering materials to china, waiting 1-2 months to be produced and loosing time on shipping as well, the company will have the products ready in less than a day where the quality will be superb since exact amount of material will be used in each item. I also find it alarming in terms of shipping industry as the # of imports or exports comes down with the availability of the technology in daily life. Since raw materials is still a crucial part of 3D Printing process the shipping of these items will not be effected however uncomplicated and less value added products will be shipped less and less. In the distant future, we might even see a new trend from container vessels back to bulk shipping since finished products will be replaced by raw materials.

What I explored above is a scenario of a distant future since the technology is still in its infant stage. Industrial scale 3D Printing (mass production) is definitely a threat to traditional assembly line however replacing millions of parts manufactured daily on an assembly line requires astronomical capital investment in 3D Printers which does not yet make sense economically. At this moment it is more like a complementary technology than a competitive one. Just a quick example, the 3D Printer that managed to manufacture the metal gun costs more than a $1 Million & it cannot do mass production yet but when the technology becomes cheaper and more available both the manufacturing and shipping industry will change for good.