3D Printing and Retail Part 2: Supply Chain

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3D Printing and Retail Part 2: Supply Chain

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This is part 2 of our series on the impacts of 3D printers on retailers. You can find part 1 here.

Walking through the mall is frustrating even on the best of days, but today it feels even more challenging than normal. Perhaps it’s because you’re stuck behind a group of meandering window shoppers, slowly making their way towards the food court. Naturally, the group organized itself in a horizontal line that completely blocks the pathway. They seemed blissfully unaware of the traffic jam they were creating.

Suddenly a young man, no older than 35, brusquely collides with your shoulder as he rushes forward. He’s in a hurry, and something as insignificant as another human being isn’t going to slow him down.

Something about this man leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Perhaps it’s because he reminds you of Wall Street brokers in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley CEOs in the 2010s.

One look at his demeanor was enough to tell you he was an executive at 3D printing company. Those guys are all the same: dressed sharply in tailored suits and gaudy watches, incessantly spitting jargon into their Bluetooth earpieces, and perpetually in a hurry. Every 3D printer executive is barely distinguishable from every other 3D printer executive, yet each likes to tell himself he’s different his peers.

You reflect on this for a moment while the man tries in vain to circumnavigate the blockade of window shopper. Here’s a man whose entire identity revolves around his career, you thought. No wonder he tells himself he’s so important.

The man makes a dissatisfied cough to alert the group of his presence, which doesn’t work. He tries this tactic a few more times, growing visibly frustrated when no one reacts.

Eventually, enough is enough. He pushes through them and mutters a rude “excuse me.” It’s a hard push, harder than he meant for it to be. An elderly lady towards the end of the group goes flying, and collides into a burly man holding a tray of smoothie samples. The executive continues on his way, barely noticing the commotion of the dropped platter.

If he’d looked back, he would have seen the sad expression in the smoothie vendor’s eyes. It wasn’t there because his samples were quickly forming a technicolored puddle on the floor, though that no doubt upset him. It was a deeper sadness, as if he’d suffered from the tragic loss of direction in life.

“You could have apologized!” the vendor shouted after the executive. “I’m a person too — I deserve some respect, right?” At this point, the executive was well out of earshot, but the vendor didn’t seem to mind. His rant continued as he walked over to the custodial closet in search of a mop.

“I used to own my own trucking company, you know! I was worth millions back then! Probably more than you.”

While cheeky, this story illustrates how 3D printing can disrupt the supply chain and affect the lives of everyday people. For the 3D printer executive, this chain was positive (arguably). In the early days of 3D printing, he would have been considered a technician with a pipe dream. But after 3D printing revolutionized the supply chain, he’s likely to be catapulted to much loftier heights.

Conversely, the former trucking company owner now works a menial job handing out smoothie samples. When 3D printers become more prominent, people will begin manufacturing products in home and retail environments. This reduces the demand for long-distance shipping, a serious problem for people in the trucking and shipping industries.

Obviously these examples are hyperbolic. Not all truckers will lose their jobs to 3D printers, and not everyone working at 3D printer companies will be held in such high esteem. But what’s undoubtedly true is that 3D printers will seriously shake up every link in the supply chain.

Today’s process for manufacturing and selling products is bulky, to say the least. The raw materials might be extracted in one country, then shipped to a factory in a different country. Once the product has been assembled, it then travels to yet another country, where it might sit in a warehouse for months on end. Finally, it heads from the warehouse to a retail storefront, where they may or may not be purchased by a customer. Meanwhile, the product designers and technicians could be located anywhere in the world, including a country not involved in any of the other steps.

3D printing eliminates many of these steps. Obviously, the time in factory will be skipped almost entirely — the printer will manufacturing the product at the time of purchase. Warehouses, too, will become more obsolete, as there won’t be thousands of products sitting around. When businesses can instantly print new units, there’s no reason to keep huge amounts of stock on hand. They’ll only create new product when they need it.

While it’s still too early to know exactly how the 3D printing supply chain will form, it could be this simple: the raw materials are extracted or synthesized in a lab, then shipped directly to the retailer. The retailer keeps the materials in storage (perhaps in an on-site warehouse), and uses only what’s necessary to meet the demands of his customers in a given moment. Almost every product they make will be sold, as it wouldn’t have been manufactured until there’s already a willing customer.

The simplification of retail supply chains will have many positive impacts, especially from an environmentalist perspective. It will sharply reduce the amount of waste produced, and make fixing and recycling old products easier than ever. It will also dramatically decrease the need for shipping, currently a major producer of greenhouse gases.

Because they won’t have to account for waste, shipping, labor, or unsold product, businesses can charge far less for their products than is currently possible. 3D printers will also reduce the demand for outsourcing and relentless globalization. When it’s cheaper and faster to 3D print a product in-store, why would a company bother outsourcing manufacturing to a factory halfway across the world?

But of course, not all of the impacts of 3D printing on the retail space will be so positive, as we saw in the example of the smoothie vendor. Jobs in most part of the supply chain will be negatively affected, especially those at factories, warehouses, and shipping companies. Many of these workers are unskilled, and they’re likely to face serious challenges finding new lines of work. Even in retail outlets, the demand for associates is likely to decline if customers are interacting directly with the printers on their own.

While the loss of jobs is heartbreaking, it shouldn’t be viewed as a reason not to embrace this exciting technology. Nearly every innovation results in a loss of jobs — and nearly every innovation also creates new categories of jobs. This is simply the nature of technological progress.

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