In recent years, Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos has been in relentless pursuit of a lag-less future in which you barely have time to utter the word “shipping” before a package hits the doorstep. In this utopia, deliveries take place within hours, not days. To make it a reality, Bezos is bringing to bear the full power of Amazon’s supply-chain resources. The company has plowed $13.9 billion since 2010 into new warehouses near its customers. It’s a massive undertaking, even for a multinational.
But a handful of smaller companies are convinced there’s a way to get products to consumers just as quickly, with greater satisfaction and at a fraction of the cost. The future, they say, is in on-demand 3-D printing.
These two methods of delivery couldn’t be more different. One relies on scaling and infrastructure to cut transportation time. The other eliminates infrastructure and instead sinks money into materials and on-site manufacturing.
It won’t be long before these technologies start overlapping and interacting – and that’s a good thing. The resulting combinations will iron out a lot of the inefficiencies of using either method alone.
Amazon is merely one of many businesses jockeying to see who can shave the most delay off their shipping options. EBay and Walmart are testing same-day delivery. The competition to trim even a few hours is intense. To get deliveries to customers in under an hour, eBay dispatches college students by foot, bike and taxi to pick up products at big-box stores and drop them at people’s doorsteps.
Faster shipping is costly. As a share of Amazon’s total sales, shipping was nearly 5 percent in 2011, up from 3.2 percent in 2009.
Same-day shipping raises the pressure on Amazon to have a more reliable inventory, lest an order come in and can’t be fulfilled within 24 hours.
Faster shipping also allows companies to produce a wider variety of products with less unsold inventory.
When air shipping began to displace ocean freight in the mid-20th century, it cut weeks off of transportation times, enabling perishable goods to survive longer trips. That trend has accelerated with aircraft technology, says David Hummels, an economist at Purdue University in Indiana.
So the less time goods spend in transit during production and distribution, the more efficient companies can be at satisfying consumer demand. But what if companies could dispense with shipping altogether by “manufacturing” goods near their final destination?
That’s where 3-D printing comes in. By producing goods in the ordered configuration precisely when they’re needed, 3-D printing is ideal for filling gaps in the supply chain (which reduces uncertainty), keeping inventory low (which saves companies money on shelving) and reducing waste (which occurs when the goods aren’t sold).
Advocates for 3-D printing argue that the manufacturing technique could upend the retail sector. A small or nonexistent inventory gives a business much more freedom to test new products. Suppose you sold coffee cups that were manufactured only as people ordered them, said Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. You could post a handful of options on your Web site at little to no cost to you, then just delete the low-performing cups.
“That would be very costly to do if you actually had to fill up a whole supply chain, a whole production line, for each of those items,” Lipson said. “But when you’re printing them or fabricating them on demand, you can much more easily adapt your production.”
The idea of most American entrepreneurs doing business this way is enticing, but limits to just-in-time manufacturing make universal adoption unlikely.
One major hurdle is that printing with more than one material at once is difficult. A typical room might contain objects with 50 materials in various combinations. To print an object, not only would you need all the materials on hand in a printable form – you’d also need a printer with multiple or interchangeable nozzles. And each new material might need to be printed under different conditions.
GPI Prototype and Manufacturing 3-D-prints metal parts by laying down a powder and then tracing a design with a laser before applying more powder and repeating the process, over and over. (All 3-D printing operates on the same principle.)
The finishing process often demands the most attention. Even a bobblehead is decorated before it’s sold.