Report: 3D Printing to Disrupt Freight Market, But Could Open New Lanes

Despite capacity crunches, things are going relatively well for freight movers right now – fuel is much lower than where it was this time last year, volumes are increasing and rates and solidifying while many firms that survived the recession are leaner and more cost effective today.

But, as it always seems to go in transportation, observers are already concerned with the next major structural  ‘threat’ to the freight system and one transportation managers will have to consider before too long: 3D printing.

According to a new report from Strategy & PwC, 3D printing – seen as a way for manufacturers to streamline operations and lower costs while offering consumers the ability to produce some of their own goods – “has substantial implications for both domestic and international freight businesses, particularly in reducing the importance of some transportation lanes while possibly opening up new ones.”

Perhaps the salient way that 3D printing could disrupt the transportation sector is through its impact on what goes into a product ( Traditionally manufactured items often have dozens or even hundreds of parts that must be produced separately, delivered to a factory, and then assembled. A product made on a 3D printer, by contrast, generally has far fewer parts.

As more types of products are manufactured in this way — direct to a finished good instead of assembled from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of parts — the need to procure parts from multiple sources around the globe will be diminished. And that, in turn, will eliminate or greatly reduce component and materials shipments, a mainstay of many transportation-sector business models today.

This probable shift will come atop some weakness in … global commercial transportation lanes resulting from re-shoring efforts. 3D printing … could add significant momentum to the re-shoring trend.

In a recent Strategy& analysis of nearly two dozen industry sectors, air cargo business and the ocean container business is most vulnerable to these types of market shifts. Trucking less so, especially certain truckload and bulk materials sectors that don’t lend themselves to other transport modes.

The report finds that footwear, toys, ceramic products, electronics, and plastics have the highest potential for disruption. Sectors such as perishables and pharmaceuticals, however, find 3D printing a less viable alternative.

While the tipping point for 3D printing is still a few years away and wholesale changes are not imminent,  the firm believes at the very least a “diagnostic review is critical, so that transportation companies have a clear picture of and anticipate well what their options are as the volume and variety of products made on 3D printers start to increase.”

The report offers several suggestions for companies who foresee 3D printing making a difference in their customer accounts, ranging from: rebalancing, adjusting networks and introducing new services as new opportunities open up.

“Historically, transportation companies’ record of anticipating the impact of technological change has been spotty,” the report concludes. “ Instead of ‘wait and see’ we advise peeking around the corner to figure out whether there might be any steps worth taking.”

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