3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM) as it’s frequently known, is a technology that’s been around for over 30 years, but is becoming increasingly common, and has grown into a huge and profitable industry.

Dr Timothy Simpson, Director of the Additive Manufacturing and Design Graduate Program and Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing at The Pennsylvania State University, said they’ve heard the industry describe 3D printing as the fourth mode of logistics: land, sea, air, and now digital.

According to the Wohlers Report 2018, 3D printing has ballooned to a US$6.063 bn industry. By 2020, the industry is expected to be worth US$17 bn, a 25% increase from 2014, according to reports by management consulting firm AT Kearney. The report also noted a significant uptick in the metal 3D printing industry this year. There was an 80% increase in metal 3D systems sold in 2016 from 983 to 1768 in 2017, according to the report.

It’s changing the logistics industry markedly. “3D printing is ushering in a new era of supply chain logistics: print the part at or near the source, and avoid or minimise shipping costs,” explained Simpson. “It is still early, but the potential impact and implications are significant.”

A 2017 Transport Reviews explained that 3D printing impacts the manner in which products are manufactured and the transport and logistics involved. 3D printing will decentralise manufacturing and supply chains, affecting transport flows, supply chain management, and business models.

With AM, “you can now send your files to anyone with a printer and have them make the part on demand, when needed,” Simpson explained. “There are considerable post-processing and finishing that needs to be done for metal parts before they can be installed on a car or airplane, but AM is a ‘digital’ fabrication technology that only needs a digital file to run.”

According to the Transport Reviews report, the 3D printing industry has far-reaching ramifications. As the industry would allow for more decentralised manufacturing, it would offer better proximity to customers and a better understanding of market needs. This, in turn, could even cut any middlemen and reshore manufacturing to high-income countries due to the digitalisation of designs, the report explained.

If designs can be sent digitally and printed locally, this will drastically reduce the need for transportation of certain goods.

Printers can be located various locations on a local and global basis and in neighbourhood 3D printing mini-factories. Local service providers could include libraries, community centres and post offices or even the homes of consumers, according to the report.

With a possible decrease in the transportation of finished goods, there will likely be a boost in the shipping of raw materials to suppliers and manufacturers, according to the Transport Review report. Raw materials will still be needed in the manufacturing process regardless of production location. The materials can be delivered in bulk, with minimal packaging, and without urgency, which could potentially lower emissions output, according to the report.

There are challenges with this technology, however. Cybersecurity, intellectual property rights, and customs are all “digital” supply chain factors that must be considered, according to Simpson. From a cybersecurity standpoint, ensuring the digital file hasn’t been hacked or intercepted is a concern. Ensuring a digital file hasn’t been duplicated and proving its authenticity is also a challenge, Simpson explained. From a customs standpoint, problems arise in assessing and inspecting the digital file, and how a part resulting from this file is regulated through quality control, he said.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and we are still trying to understand all of the implications of AM. It is making us question nearly every aspect of how we design, make, distribute, and sell goods – and changing the business models behind this as well,” Simpson concluded.