UPS: 3D Printing Maps Out A New Future - InformationWeek

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08:05 AM

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.

CloudDDM installation at the UPS Global Distribution Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

(Image: CloudDDM)

CloudDDM installation at the UPS Global Distribution Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

(Image: CloudDDM)

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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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Apprentice
10/6/2017 | 4:08:46 AM
Re: Printer
There is just so much potential for having a 4D printer on a personal basis, I can't imagine the impact it will have on businesses that deal in materials and the like. Not to mention the kind of advertising you can come up with if you used a 3D printer to market your company too. I can think of a lot of things that a company can print to distribute to its customers when they are trying to gain traction in the market. It'll be exciting to see what comes of this in the next few months as businesses jump on the bandwagon for printing!
User Rank: Ninja
1/26/2016 | 10:31:28 AM
Think outside the box.
I have to applaud UPS for thinking outside the box (or inside a 3D printing box) to keep their company moving forward. The idea of rarer parts being 3D printed locally so UPS can then deliver them in a timely fashion is huge. Now if you need a rare part, you spend time tracking it down, waiting for it to ship from who knows where and when it gets to you, hoping it is indeed the right part and not mislabeled or otherwise damaged. It takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. If it were possible to 3D print it and get it with a couple of days that could be huge for many companies and customers. Plus it moves UPS into something other than a guy in a brown truck that delivers your Amazon order. If your local UPS already had 3D print capabilities,what would you use it for?
Jason Lebrecht
Jason Lebrecht,
User Rank: Moderator
1/15/2016 | 9:38:27 PM
Great News
I am excited to see progress for the 3D Printing Industry. Once you see a company the size of UPS jumping onboard, the rest will follow. The logistics angle is great, will be interesting to see how Amazon ambushes this industry.

Jason Lebrecht

John Hauer
John Hauer,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/13/2016 | 9:53:06 AM
Great Article!
Nice article Curtis. It was great to tag along for the interview with Alan. Hope you Didn't mind!

@Arellia - I'll take a shot at responding to your comment. The reason someone might consider taking their 3D print job to a UPS Store vs. an office supply store is first, they've been much faster to execute. UPS Store currently has printers in over 60 stores. Last time I checked, Staples was actually printing in just a few locations. Which brings up an interesting point. Should every store have a printer? How about a $70K per year CAD consultant? At some point it makes more sense to order online and pick up in-store...unless you're looking to have a physical product scanned.

Which touches on the longer term reason why someone might choose UPS. Once you can get objects in digital format, you can ship them digitally and manufacture (or remanufacture) them locally. As we learned in 2D printing, it's way less expensive to ship data than paper.

For companies like UPS and Fedex, this equals disruption. Even the USPS recognizes it. A recent study suggested 3D printing could have a $350 Million / year impact on them. Several post offices around the world (France, South Korea, etc.) already offer 3D printing.  
User Rank: Author
1/13/2016 | 9:21:02 AM
I also don't anticipate a printer on the trucks. It would either have to always be wrapped up while the truck is moving or put at risk of being knocked about and damaged. But I do wonder: what would impel people to stop into a UPS center for their 3D printing needs? Staples also offers it, and I'd think more people would be dropping into the office supply store than a shipping center. For myself, I use one of thoe drop off places that takes UPS packages. I don't even know where the closest real UPS location would be.
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