Amazon, famous for selling books, CDs and anything else they can think of are really looking to the future of logistics.
In March they filed several patents for an on-demand 3D printing service that would see them install a printer on a truck. The idea is to have the truck visit the customer and print the item on their doorstep. Clearly Amazon are looking at the lead time from ordering a part to the customer receiving it, which could be up to several weeks depending on where that part is located.
For example, some years ago, I had the gearbox of a Honda rebuilt by the dealer and the car was off the road for 6 weeks whilst components were shipped in from Japan. If the dealer had been able to have a truck turn up and print the parts on-site then the gearbox could have been rebuilt in a few days thus providing the dealer with a faster repair and ultimately getting my cash into their bank account much quicker.
This concept could be revolutionary for the logistics business. Firstly there would be no need for massive warehouses anymore or systems to define the right time to buy from the factory. There would be less environmental damage from transportation as the reliance on aircraft and heavy trucks would be reduced and cash flow would be increased (a good thing for a company to expand with) as the sale could be payment on delivery.
Feasibly the reduced warehouse workers could be retrained to be the drivers and printer operators who would have a computer connected with a range of component specifications for the printer to churn out. If the printers were lightweight, it would also be feasible to have them in electric utility vehicles (an opportunity for Tesla perhaps?) that would reduce the carbon footprint of the delivery further.
Of course you could take it one stage further and deploy an autonomous vehicle with the instructions to deliver the part that is being printed en route! However, from an automobile perspective, what would stop each dealer having a range of printers installed: one for plastics, one for aluminium and one for another material that are connected to the factory to receive the specification on-demand. This would keep the intellectual property inside the manufacturers domain and would instantly provide the part as needed in the workshop. Customers would then receive a component backed by a factory warranty much quicker and therefore would feel happier about using the dealer for repairs and servicing.
I like the idea of 3D printing and have been following Local Motors for some time as they pioneer cars built using this technology. I’ll write a post about them in the near future. I think Amazon and Local Motors are going in the right direction and I think we will see specialists creating parts – in fact this could put a lot of old classics back in working order because their parts are unavailable today but could be tomorrow!
The downside is that on-demand 3D printing further reduces the need for humans in the process, removing jobs from stable economies but not replacing them with jobs in other areas. Ultimately this could help to unstabilise an economy as more people find they are out of work – a perceived problem when computers first moved out of being a specialisation but didn’t materialise over time, however we could be on the cusp of seeing technology finally making big inroads into taking employment away from workers.
It will certainly help many economies move from a manufacturing focus to a service economy and that could help replace manufacturing jobs with service delivery ones.