Your home is printing now! What does 3D printing mean for logistics?

3D printing is big news. It is already a $14.5 billion dollar industry, and is set to keep growing steadily over the next few years. Reports saying it’s now possible to print everything from weapons to an entire house are very eye-catching – and for many businesses and industries potentially alarming.

There’s no doubt that 3D printing, which is also often called “additive manufacturing”, has world-changing disruptive potential, but are we really about to start printing everything we need? Famously, Bill Gates’ mission at Microsoft was to put “A computer in every home”. For the additive manufacturing vanguard, is this about to be updated to “A 3D printer in every home”?

We caught up with Biju Kewalram, Agility’s Chief Digital Officer, to find out the reality of 3D printing, how it is affecting the global supply chain, and what it means for logistics startups.

Is the 3D printing trend really everything it’s made out to be, or is it hype?

There’s no doubt that 3D printing is going to revolutionize global trade at some point – even more than we can currently imagine. However, many projections are over-ambitious about how quickly that impact is going to happen.

When people talk about 3D printing, they tend to imagine whole items which are ready-made, like houses, clothes or food. Additive manufacturing is already being used in a lot of products, but it is often to create prototypes or to assemble small elements of larger products, such as parts, finishings and fittings. These are very useful, but not quite as glamorous!

When it does take off, some futurists talk about every home having its own 3D printer to produce everything they need. Won’t that destroy the logistics industry?

This isn’t a very realistic scenario! 3D printers are already available to buy, but for individual households they are quite expensive and limited in what they can produce, so their uptake has been limited. Some people might start printing certain things at home, but personal printers replacing third party goods altogether is unlikely to ever happen. If it does, there are so many other issues to overcome – like households storing the necessary range of raw materials – that it is still an extremely long way off.

That’s not to say there’s no appeal. My colleague Henadi Al-Saleh and her children had a great experience trying out a 3D printer at home. Her son really loved designing his model and watching it print. There’s clearly something very special and exciting about this technology, but there’s a world of difference between that and it replacing shopping as we know it.

So what’s the real impact of 3D printing for the logistics industry?

It’s crucial to understand that once 3D printing revolutionizes manufacturing – which there’s no doubt it will – there will still be a supply chain. It’s going to transform logistics, not destroy it.

Even with 3D printing as the main method of global manufacturing, the various raw materials needed to print goods will still have to be sourced, moved and stored. Warehouse capacity for hundreds of thousands of printers will be required, and printed goods will have to be transported to their end destination.

Right now, the puzzle of how to reposition the raw material needed for 3D printing at scale still hasn’t been solved. How are you going to get the right amount of raw material in the right place at the right time so you don’t have leftover inventory? 3D printing won’t destroy the supply chain; it will just replace one puzzle with another.

What’s Agility doing in the 3D printing space?

At Agility, we have a stack of 18 technologies we are continuously monitoring for market opportunity, and 3D printing is one of them. We use a defined methodology to assess each technology’s state of readiness, and move when it becomes an attractive opportunity.

At the moment, 3D printing doesn’t fulfill our criteria. We’re waiting for new business models to emerge, but we’re monitoring the technology’s progress and we fully expect it to become attractive in the future. When the time is right, we’ll start moving rapidly through our pilot and partner process.

What does it mean for tech and logistics startups?

It’s certainly nothing to be alarmed about, and there will be exciting opportunities because of this technology in the future. Big logistics players are monitoring the technology and opportunity, and although 3D printing will one day change how goods are manufactured and distributed more than we realize, we are not quite there yet.

Startups developing new ideas and business models in the logistics space certainly shouldn’t be put off by 3D printing. And in lots of areas of tech and manufacturing, 3D printing is already having a big impact – so startups who can harness this momentum can make a real impact.