Maker Faire Round-Up Part 1: 3D Printing

At the end of September, I made my annual visit to the New York World Maker Faire, held annually in Queens at the Hall of Science.   Each year the flavor of the event is slightly different, and there are usually 2-3 main focus areas of innovation that seem to dominate.   This year the three areas with the most interest and exhibitors were definitely 3D printing, drones and robotic arms!   Funny how at least two of those are innovations we are hearing a lot about in our postal ecosystem!   In this series of articles, I will re-cap each, starting with 3d printing.

Yes, we’ve all heard about 3D printing for some years now, and many may think that it’s been more hype than reality.   Back in 2013, PostalVision 2020 featured a Skype interview of Chris Anderson (author of “Makers”) by Jeff Jarvis from the PV2020 conference floor – and conference attendees received a copy of Makers in recognition of the first time we addressed 3D printing at PostalVision 2020.

There was talk a few years ago about how 3D printing would revolutionize the manufacturing and logistics/shipping industries as consumers became able to 3D print a long list of items in their own home, or at local 3D printing centers.  While significant disruption of the logistics/shipping space has not happened yet, there have been many developments in the 3D printing industry that are important to know and they provide some insight as to where the industry is headed and how it will impact those in the shipping/logistics industry in the future.

Consumer vs. Commercial Uses of 3D Printing

As we look at 3D printing adoption and implementation, it is important to differentiate between consumer and commercial use of 3d printing.  The Maker Faire, where (in my opinion) 3D printing for the consumer was born with the development of the original Maker Bot home 3d printer (I still have one in our family workshop!), largely focuses on 3D printing for the consumer.  But it has been interesting over the past 5-6 years to see how it has evolved both at the Maker Faire itself as well as within the consumer retail industry.

At the start, there were only 2-3 home 3D printer models available and the cost was quite high.  It seemed only real geeks were buying and using these printers, making a variety of plastic objects at home.   But over recent years, helped by the introduction of commercial versions of the 3d home printer, the industry has blossomed.   Where there used to be 2-3 exhibitors of home 3d printers at the Maker Faire, there now are nearly too many to count!  The printers come in a variety of models, can use a variety of substrates, and can make an ever-growing array of objects.

Not only have the printers themselves become less expensive and more numerous, an entire support industry has come to life around 3d printing.   From those offering design software to create your own 3d images/designs, to tools to share 3d printing design specs, to services that perform 3d scanning of objects and people, to those selling substrate materials, to those selling manufactured items – it is a healthy and growing industry.

Looking beyond the consumer 3D printing industry, there is another 3d printing industry that is seeing tremendous growth – commercial use of 3d printing technology.  Industry analysts have estimated that in 2012 up to 30% of finished products already involve some type of 3d printing and by 2016 that is expected to rise to 50% — up to potentially 80% by 2020!

Here are just a few of the commercial industry segments that have embraced 3D printing and are aggressively exploring uses for the technology.

Health Care and Medical Industries.   The health care and medical industries are ones where commercial use of 3d printing has taken off.  Recent accomplishments in the news include surgeons able to 3D print models of ears to practice a complicated procedure of fashioning new ears for children from rib cartilage; surgeons able to 3D print models of skull/brain using CT/MRI imaging to determine the best approach to complex tumors; a first case recently of a 3D printed titanium set of ribs successfully implanted; and a host of customized, individualized, 3D printing applications are being experimented with in orthopedics, prosthetics, dentistry, and more (http://hitconsultant.net/2015/09/28/how-3d-printing-is-driving-innovation-to-medical-specialties/)!

And recent experiments of 3D printing complex objects in gel holds promise to pave the way for the possibility of 3D printed organs in the future!

Service Parts and Automotive Industry.   Another industry already seeing adoption and transformation from 3D Printing is the service parts and automotive industry.  Just recently, Local Motors introduced the first road-ready 3D printed car (http://3dprintingindustry.com/automotive/)!  Others, like Toyota, Peugot, Ford and others are all exploring the potential of 3D printing automotive parts, components, models, and more.

Industry analysts envision mobile 3D printing stations with electronic design libraries on a local computer could produce replacement parts on demand using 3D printing.

GE foresees a time when the whole engine could be 3D printed, while others believe that even in the short and medium term partial solutions will be developed combining existing technology with new 3D printing technology.

Good Enough to Eat.  Another industry embracing the creative and customization potential of 3d printing is the food industry (http://3dprintingindustry.com/food/).  Custom designed candy, chocolates and more are a growing 3d printing industry, while others are experimenting with concepts like using 3D printing to bring new textures and flavors to elder consumers with eating restrictions.

Aerospace and Beyond.  Similar to 3D printing of parts and components in the automotive industry, the aerospace industry also is looking at manufacture of airplane parts and components.  The U.S. military has produced both new parts and prototypes for planes, a Spanish company has 3D-printed a working Boeing 787 jet engine, a Polish aircraft repair company is using 3D printing to upgrade fighter jets, and GE has launched its own mass 3D printing facility for production of fuel nozzles.

And another early adopter in use of 3D printing technology is taking it to the outer limits – the outer space limits, that is!  A year ago a 3D printer created the first object in space on the International Space Station (https://www.nasa.gov/content/open-for-business-3-d-printer-creates-first-object-in-space-on-international-space-station/)!   And the World Maker Faire in NYC in September featured a NASA competition for 3D printed habitat models (http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/centennial_challenges/3DPHab/2015winners.html).

Extending the Reach of 3D Printing to Consumers

Blending the commercial industry and consumer use of 3D printing, each day the news contains another announcement about how availability of 3D printing to consumers is growing through retail outlets.

The UPS Store recently announced that it has rolled out 3D printing services to 100 stores nationwide, following successful pilot testing of such services last year.  While the services are targeted at businesses, consumers also can use them.  UPS also announced a new cloud-based on-demand 3D printing company called CloudDDM which places 100 3D printers at a central facility located at the UPS Worldwide hub in Louisville, KY, for easy access to its distribution network.

More recently, Staples announced it is teaming with Sculpteo to offer online 3D printing services where customers can upload their designs or choose from a variety of pre-designed models to have objects 3D printed.   The retailer also sells 3d printers, which are now available at many retailers including Home Depot, Best Buy, and, of course, on Amazon.

What About the Posts and 3D Printing? 

Foreign posts have begun to explore 3D printing opportunities, starting in 2013 with pilot testing by France’s La Poste (http://3dprintingindustry.com/2013/11/29/just-nipping-post-office-darling-need-couple-3d-printed-models/), which now has fully moved into the 3D printing market by offering a range of services including 3D printers at some offices and 3D printed customized packaging cut to the exact shape of delicate objects for better shipping.

In December 2014, Royal Mail started a pilot project with 3D printer manufacturer iMakr which allows designers to offer 3D printed products through an online portal which can be downloaded and printed by Royal Mail users.  Even companies in other countries can print products through the Royal Mail service and have them delivered by Royal Mail to their customers in Europe (http://www.i-q-i.net/en/innovating-for-the-future-3d-copy-shops-in-post-offices/).

The USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently issued its second white paper (https://uspsoig.gov/document/update-3d-printing-and-postal-service)  around the 3D printing market, as well as its recommendation that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) start now to “associate itself with 3D printing in the minds of the public,” as well as partnering with 3D printing companies, providing “3D printing materials and support services for local small businesses or serve as a community maker space.”  “In addition,” the OIG said, “it could establish a reverse logistics service to handle recycling and processing of 3D printed goods, so that materials can be reused for future printing.”

So What About Disruption in our Postal Ecosystem? 

The USPS OIG correctly pointed out that waiting for a “full-blown consumer 3D printing revolution could mean missing the multitude of ways that businesses are already embracing the technology and changing the world.”  It noted that “[t]he examples of La Poste, UPS, and others show that there may be demand for printing services inside post offices.”

But beyond looking at opportunities in the 3D printing market for posts, we should not dismiss the growing likelihood that 3D printing really will disrupt the logistics and distribution ecosystem.

According to a January 2014 article by logistics industry experts (http://www.supplychain247.com/article/the_implications_of_3d_printing_for_the_global_logistics_industry), “‘3D Printing’, or ‘additive manufacturing’ as it is also known, has the potential to become the biggest single disruptive phenomenon to impact global industry since assembly lines were introduced in early twentieth century America.”   The article notes that while industry may not undergo a “complete transformation for many years,” some sectors are being penetrated much earlier.  The experts recommend that “the most enlightened logistics companies could even become early adopters of the technologies – investing in the 3D Printers and providing facilities for engineers – rather than kicking against the progress.”  “This would also provide a way of leveraging their capital and their own technological capabilities,” they said.

“It is clear that if the larger logistics companies delay or ignore the implications of this trend,” the experts write, “they are vulnerable to new kinds of organisations or associations that will match or leap ahead of their capabilities for very little outlay.”

Of course some believe that instead of 3D printing cannibalizing delivery of manufactured items in the long term, it will simply result in replacement in that the substrate materials themselves will need to be delivered.  Personally, I think one delivery of a big spool of filament does not equate to the many deliveries of items that can be printed from that one big spool… What do you think 3D printing means to the logistics and distribution industry?  Weigh in on the topic using our comment form below!

What Next?

The 3D printing phenomenon kind of reminds me of that old 1950s movie, “The Blob,” which featured this dark oozing mass that got bigger and bigger, absorbing everything in its path.  That’s how I see the 3D printing concept – I look at anything that is manufactured today and think of how 3D printing might be applied.  And that includes applying 3D printing to innovations in other areas — concept in point – 3D printed drones….they’re here! (http://www.techtimes.com/articles/104943/20151110/3d-printed-jet-powered-drone-takes-to-the-skies-at-a-whopping-150-mph.htm)

By Kathy Siviter

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