3D Printing and Its Impact on Logistics

Will 3D printing revolutionize the world? It has that potential.
Will 3D printing eliminate all of our logistic problems? No, but it will have a significant impact on logistics. How will 3D printing affect the world of logistics?

• What Gets Moved

3D printing could lead to logistics shifting from moving finished products to moving the feed stocks used by 3D printers to make finished products. In short, we’ll have more local manufacturing but keep the long distance shipping of raw materials if and until the finished products made by 3D printers can be recycled.
Metal can still be recycled, thought the polymers used for 3D printing is still TBD. When these items have been printed, painted, machined, coated and otherwise finished, they may or may not be recyclable. If not, then logistics must add them to the waste disposal network.

• You Can’t Print Everything

The logistics of everything we can’t print doesn’t change at all. You may print a fancy bodice, new furniture and biodegradable plastic plates, but the strawberries still come from California, the crab from Alaska, the potatoes from Idaho and the natural gas or oil that runs the stove from North Dakota. Medical products and drugs still get moved by truck to the stores, hospitals and pharmacies. Even if 3D printing nearly revolutionizes manufacturing, food, fuel and raw materials for what cannot be printed like timber and steel still get moved by the traditional methods.
High tech electronics are far to complicated to be printed by 3D printing baring a cute little protective case. Thus your microchips, smart phones and laptop computers are still going to be manufactured in Silicon Valley or China and shipped to the United States as they are today.

• How Travel Changes

3D printing won’t affect the economics of moving product. It is still ten times cheaper (or more) to ship something by water than by land. 3D printing won’t eliminate labor costs and labor cost differentials. 3D printing could mean it is easier to make fantastical designs or customized medical supports like exo-skeletons for disabled toddlers, but it may be made in China due to their cheaper labor costs and low shipping costs.
Suppose we get local recycling of feedstock for 3D manufacturing going, so that shipping of high volumes of feedstock are not required across long distances. You could theoretically see fewer trips to the big box mart and more to the garage for the kids’ latest creation. However, people still average around 10% of their time travelling. If they don’t have to go to the store as often, they will travel to activities or visit friends more often. An ideal world of local replicators, so to speak, will mean much more local travel and less long distance travel for goods. But it will have little impact on personal decisions for long distance travel, much less local ones.

• The Rest of the Waste Flow

3D printers are not Star Trek replicators. They unfortunately can’t dematerialize your paper waste, human waste and everything else you want to get rid of into energy to run your appliances or create new items.
The waste handling for 3D printed products may or may not include the landfill. Construction waste is at this point unchanged, since 3D printed buildings today are more like plastic shells that still need to be filled in with pipes and electrical wiring. Most of what is ripped out is recycled somewhere like the Habitat for Humanity Restore, burned for energy or taken to the landfill as it already is today. The logistics of waste handling for sewers are unchanged.