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UPS: 3D Printing Maps Out A New Future

UPS is embracing 3D printing as part of the future of logistics. Here's how the logistics company is using technology and some key partnerships to map out a new future for its supply chain.
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If you're a small business waiting for a crucial repair part, you know relief is in sight when you see the big brown UPS ... 3D printer? That's the big vision for the future, and it's a vision that's on its way to being fulfilled.

UPS is, as its ads constantly tell us, a logistics company.

For Alan Amling, vice president marketing for UPS global logistics and distribution, those logistics increasingly include light assembly and manufacturing, with 3D printing a huge component of the latter.

In a conversation following his participation on a commercial 3D printing panel at CES 2016, Amling talked with me about UPS's evolving relationship with the supply chain and the role that 3D printing plays in that relationship.

Hopkins Golf is an existing UPS customer that shows exactly what the supply chain relationship can be. Hopkins Golf features highly customized golf clubs. Amling said, "You'd never want to make and store all the possible combinations. UPS stores shafts and heads and puts them together to order -- this is light assembly that's already being done."

From the sort of light assembly being done for Hopkins Golf, it's a short hop to more involved light manufacturing.

"3D printing coupled with pre-manufactured parts is the next evolution," said Amling. That evolution will require both UPS and its customers to adapt practices to the new model. "One of the key learnings so far is that that customers have inventory, but it's not 3D ready. The scanning isn't just surface scanning." Interior structures optimized for structural strength and weight also come into play.

The results of successfully turning physical items into digital files are then sent to 3D printing -- which at this point happens within the UPS distribution center in Louisville, Ky. That's where CloudDDM, a 3D printing service company in which UPS has invested, has roughly 100 3D printers ready to print orders received via the Web.

Rick Smith, cofounder of CloudDDM, said that his company is using the partnership with UPS to separate itself from competing 3D printing service companies.

"Most of the service companies in the space are mom and pop, but CloudDDM is trying to be a manufacturer with some scale. The target parts are things like low-volume replacement parts that might fall below the minimum order from a manufacturer," Smith said.

Smith said that CloudDDM's relationship with UPS came from a series of discussions with UPS executives.

"We talked about this huge disruptive tech over a 50 year span. UPS is a supply chain management company. They want to go to customers and tell them this is how to think about additive manufacturing," Smith explained.

Amling said that the model for manufacturing and digital reordering is still a work in progress.

[Read more about UPS and its embrace of new technologies.]

"When you start talking about that, you get to the iPod/iTunes ecosystem, and no one in manufacturing has it all figured out," Amling said. With the mention of an ecosystem, though, Amling began to talk about the role of the UPS Store. "We're looking at the stores as part of the network." Ultimately, the UPS model is to do the printing wherever it makes the most sense, whether that's in a local UPS store or a central facility like the current CloudDDM installation in Louisville.

3D printing is a global target for UPS, but Amling says that the company will use the US to get the model right, then export it. One thing he does not see, though, is a printer on every big brown truck. "There are many low-hanging applications that take precedence."

The applications of 3D printing, low-hanging or not, should involve many different people and organizations, said Smith. "Will it disrupt absolutely everything in the next 20 years? No. But will it touch everyone in that time? Yes."

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