If It Prints, It Ships: 3D Printing and the Postal Service
Staff posted on July 09, 2014 |

3D printing, USPS, We are living in a world where it is possible to convert digital files at one location into physical objects at another, transforming bits into atoms. We can do this with 3D printing, a technology that turns customers into creators and has the potential to make a significant impact on the $10.5 trillion global manufacturing industry. 3D printers build solid objects usually one razor-thin layer at a time using plastics, powders, metals, polymers, or other materials. New techniques are rapidly expanding the capabilities of this technology, such as producing surfaces as smooth as glass. People are already using 3D printing to create a wide range of things, from airplane parts, dental implants, and custom-fit hearings aids to personalized iPhone cases and tiny action figures. In addition, scientists are experimenting with using 3D printing to replicate and replace living human tissues, producing a “bio-ink” that could someday revolutionize medical care.

As 3D printing spreads and moves production closer to consumption, it could have major implications for everyone along existing supply chains, including the U.S. Postal Service. 3D printing could lead to more single-item parcels being shipped to consumers over shorter distances, instead of hundreds of thousands of identical items sent by containerized cargo over vast distances. It could also lead to reduced fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, as well as less material waste due to precise manufacturing. Moreover, 3D printing could make large retailers rethink their need for maintaining expensive and duplicative warehouses stocked with massive inventories in favor of just-in-time inventory.

The size of the 3D printing industry helps to convey how important it could be to the American public and the Postal Service. The total 3D printing industry was valued at around $3 billion in 2013 and is expected to grow to $16.2 billion by 2018. Given its potential size, 3D printing could start to reshore previously outsourced manufacturing back to the United States. Someday very soon, 3D printing could be a powerful engine for job creation and economic growth.

3D printing has already come to dominate rapid prototyping and is fundamentally altering other industrial activities. However, much of the excitement around 3D printing is driven by the potential for customized products. 3D printing allows people to actually design or buy things that previously existed only in their imagination. This wave of mass customization is converging with an emerging maker movement — innovative artisans, entrepreneurs, and everyday people who can use 3D printing to bring their digital creations into the physical world. 3D printing has the power to democratize manufacturing by giving more people access to production and allowing them to make unique items. As the list of things that can be printed continues to grow, consumer interest in 3D printing will gain momentum.

The Postal Service could benefit tremendously by the rise of 3D printing. This is primarily due to two factors: the Postal Service’s ubiquitous first- and last-mile delivery network and its strength in handling lightweight goods. The Office of Inspector General asked Christensen Associates — a renowned economic consulting firm with extensive knowledge of Postal Service operations — to assess how 3D printing could affect the Postal Service. By analyzing commercial package data, Christensen Associates estimated that 3D printing could raise the Postal Service’s annual package revenue by $485 million as businesses ship increasing numbers of 3D printed goods to consumers. To capture the potential benefit of 3D printing, the Postal Service must at least maintain its current delivery network and keep pace with evolving consumer needs. Many 3D printed products will be manufactured closer to where consumers live but will still need last-mile delivery. Businesses wishing to put their 3D printed products in the hands of consumers as quickly and conveniently as possible may need the ubiquitous postal network. And if people someday print many items directly, they may frequently need 3D printing supplies such as powders and binding materials delivered. No other organization covers as much ground as frequently and reliably as the Postal Service.

Moreover, the generally small and lightweight nature of 3D printed items makes them a perfect fit for delivery by the Postal Service. Private delivery firms already use the Postal Service for final delivery of many of their own small packages because the Postal Service’s network allows it to deliver these packages more cost effectively. The Postal Service could take further actions to ensure that it helps to meet the future needs of citizens and businesses. For example, the Postal Service could partner with 3D printing companies and even potentially bring some printing onsite at postal facilities, as well as provide microwarehousing to help ensure rapid shipment printed goods. The Postal Service could also help protect copyrighted or sensitive digital design files by providing a trusted online marketplace for transmission of designs, or by delivering some files physically through carriers. This could bring a level of security, confidentiality, and privacy that the Internet cannot match. In addition, the Postal Service could look into how advertisers might use 3D printing to customize offerings and better connect with consumers. The Postal Service could also use 3D printing to improve its own internal operations by printing spare parts to repair vehicles and mail processing equipment more efficiently.

The 3D printing revolution has only just begun. 3D printing has the potential to be amazingly disruptive, and some people think the changes brought on by it will exceed even those of the Internet. While the Internet did much to overcome the challenges of time and distance by making everything local, 3D printing could take things to the next level by making on-demand products at any location. The question is, who will win from a 3D printing revolution and who will lose? By embracing this groundbreaking technology, the Postal Service could put a compelling 21st century twist on its historical mission to serve citizens and facilitate commerce.

Source: USPS

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