3D Printing: How might it disrupt supply-chain logistics and freight delivery patterns?

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) is a computer-controlled process that, using a 3D printer, creates three-dimensional objects from a digital design template and layers of material. This process can produce complex, integrated designs in a one-step process without extra tools or molds, potentially reducing the cost of manufacturing and need for extensive assembly work. A single 3D printer can produce a theoretically infinite variety of designs depending on the capabilities of the printer itself (e.g., size and type of material).

Current Status

Applications of 3D printing fall into two broad categories: consumer and commercial. Consumer applications at present have tended to focus on making gadgets for hobbyists. The relatively high cost of a consumer 3D printer ($1,500 to $2,000 on average) has thus far limited individual ownership to select hobbyists and enthusiasts. However, the variety of consumer applications is continuing to increase. Some current applications include:

  • Customized household items like containers, hooks, and cooking utensils
  • Mattel & Autodesk’s allows children to design toys
  • Customized jewelry and fashion
  • Diverse novelty items such as camera and watch components, musical instruments

Fueling the increasing variety of designs are online platforms such as Thingiverse and Pinshape that share open source digital designs. In addition, there are a growing number of brick-and-mortar fabrication shops (“fabshops”) in urban areas that offer 3D printing access to a wider audience of people through collective use.

Commercial applications initially focused on rapid prototyping and proof-of-concept for manufacturing. However, the commercial applications have evolved to include more complex applications such as:

Possible Impacts on Transportation Planning

Increased commercial and consumer 3D printing use could result in a number of potential benefits and drawbacks related to transportation and travel. Possible benefits include:

Increased local, decentralized production of goods, “just in time” inventory management, and on-demand goods production

Decreased air pollutant emissions associated with fewer long-distance delivery vehicle trips

Decreased long-distance vehicle trips and vehicle miles of travel due to more localized delivery and a shorter supply chain

Decreased roadway maintenance costs associated with fewer long-distance delivery vehicle trips

Increased roadway capacity and reduced vehicular delay associated with fewer long-distance delivery trips

Decreased conflicts at at-grade railroad crossings associated with fewer long-distance rail delivery vehicles

Possible drawbacks of increased 3D printing that relate to transportation include:

Increased shorter-distance vehicle trips and vehicle miles of travel associated with local deliveries of raw printing materials to more, decentralized manufacturing facilities or with increased 3D printing at home


A Study on 3D Printing and its Effects on the Future of Transportation. (forthcoming). Retrieved from https://cait.rutgers.edu/cait/research/study-3d-printing-and-its-effects-future-transportation

Birtchnell, T., Urry, J., Cook, C., & Curry, A. (2013). Freight miles: the impact of 3D printing on transport and society. Lancaster University. Retrieved from http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/66198/1/Freight_Miles_Report.pdf

DHL (2016). 3D Printing and The Future of Supply Chains: A DHL perspective on the state of 3D printing and implications for logistics. Retrieved at http://www.dhl.com/content/dam/downloads/g0/about_us/logistics_insights/dhl_trendreport_3dprinting.pdf

Heater, B. (n.d.). MIT’s giant mobile 3D printer can build a building in 14 hours, and some day it may be headed to Mars. Retrieved from http://social.techcrunch.com/2017/04/27/mits-giant-mobile-3d-printer-can-build-a-building-in-14-hours-and-some-day-it-may-be-headed-to-mars/

UPS (2016). 3D Printing: The Next Revolution in Industrial Manufacturing. Retrieved from https://www.ups.com/media/en/3D_Printing_executive_summary.pdf

Weller, C., Kleer, R., & Piller, F. T. (2015). Economic implications of 3D printing: Market structure models in light of additive manufacturing revisited. International Journal of Production Economics, 164, 43–56. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925527315000547

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Fehr & Peers will continue to devote some of our R&D resources to evaluating emerging technologies such as 3D Printing so we can keep our clients informed and help them navigate this rapidly changing landscape.