Is 3D Printing the Death of Traditional Fulfillment and Distribution?

Published : August 20, 2014

three-dimensionalSupply and demand, as expressed in fulfillment and distribution, has been a fairly trustworthy constant since the industrial age. The prevailing process is the manufacture of a large amount of products at a central location, which in turn are shipped to stores or end consumers. Technology, however, has introduced a disruptive newcomer to this business model— one that is shaking up everything we know about the product fulfillment process: 3D printing.

Making Waves Out of Ripples

Like the futuristic replicator machines showcased in science fiction shows like Star Trek, 3D printing creates objects right before the user's eyes. Unlike Star Trek, however, our 3D printers need a medium to operate, and while they typically use plastic resin, new advances have introduced everything from metal alloys to gourmet chocolate to the mix. 

Combined with the advancement of 3D printing techniques, printer operators can now sculpt, mold, carve and form just about anything anywhere they can find a power source. 

Solutions to extremely unique problems— such as crafting easily chewed food for the elderly from fresh ingredients— are being developed, almost as a side effect of the relentless evolution of 3D printing methods. While this is hailed as convenient for the end product users, those in traditional product fulfillment roles might wonder what this means for the food provider that used to ship puree to the same care facility.

Are 3D Printers the New Microwaves?

The fulfillment and distribution industry has tended to overlook the disruptive threat that 3D printers pose in the manufacturer-consumer relationship. Until now, there wasn't even a question that individuals needed a distributing link to get their products, but now that presence is more of a generality than an absolute. 

Much like the evolution of computers, the first 3D printers started as large and unwieldy room-sized objects with minimal useful output. Today's 3D printers are much different. 

Consumer-friendly models can come as small as a dorm fridge and cost as little as $200, an easy procurement that's causing more than a little concern amongst established manufacturers. However, despite their reasonable size and price tag, 3D printing is still something of a curiosity as far as the general public is concerned. As more and more hobbyists set up printers in their homes, that may change— much like the home computer's meteoric rise in the last few decades.

Keeping "Enemies" Closer

3D printing is not necessarily an "us versus them" scenario in terms of distribution and fulfillment, and remaining consciously ignorant of the abilities of the method could end up costing you in the long run. 

The same benefits that apply to consumers on an individual basis can be harnessed by companies that are smart enough to explore their options. 

Imagine a fulfillment center agile enough to respond to a local surge in demand for a product. Warehouse space could be reduced to a few 3D printers and spools of printing medium, requiring less square footage, staff and overhead. Short runs of products would be infinitely easier, with no need for specialized guidance or supervision beyond sending a CAD file. 

Naturally, these advances would have keep a firm emphasis on quality control to convince the buying public that 3D printed products were worth the same as traditionally distributed ones, but the outlook for a 'wired in' business utilizing a 3D print-friendly fulfillment and distribution provider is surprisingly optimistic.

While we’re still a ways off from practical distribution and fulfillment, investigating tech-forward advances is never a wasted effort. 3D printing isn't yet the death of traditional distribution. It may, however, just turn out to be the motivation pushing it into a new age of rebirth.

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Topics: Supply Chain Technology

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