Over the past decade, we've noted several times in this space that logistics has a nice built-in hedge against being replaced by emerging technology. Despite all the amazing technological breakthroughs during the period, logistics has effectively been sheltered from obsolescence by the very nature of its activity.
The technology has been amazing indeed. You have at your disposal today systems that provide end-to-end product and inventory visibility, optimize your logistics network, track shipments globally in real time, and in the case of artificial intelligence software, even make critical logistics business decisions for you. Yet for all they can do to enhance efficiency, there's one thing these technologies can't do: replace a logistics operation. At the end of the day, somebody (and something) has still got to physically move all your company's stuff.
And we've always assumed nothing would change that until the day comes when, say, Star Trek-style teleportation becomes a reality.
Well, folks, that day may be closer than you ever imagined, and it will flat-out rock your (logistics) world, and in 3D, no less.
Behold the emergence of 3D printers. Still in their relative infancy, these machines can already, with just a few keystrokes, spit out anything from a wedding ring or a shirt button to replacement parts for your car. Just as easily as your desktop printer puts ink on a sheet of paper, 3D printers extrude ultrathin fibers of heated plastic and layer them to turn software-enhanced images into actual solid objects.
It's not as far-fetched as it seems. In fact, a New York-based company called MakerBot started selling the $2,200 Replicator 2, its latest and most advanced 3D printer, back in September. In just over a month, it had sold over 2,000 units.
MakerBot is viewed as the leader in an emerging technology sector that is admittedly still in the early stages. The predictions, though, are that it will mature quickly. In fact, Deloitte projects that the global market for 3D printers, currently estimated at just under $200 million in annual sales, will grow twofold each year for the foreseeable future.
With these 3D printers getting better every day—and with the potential to produce even larger and more complex items—consumers and businesses can now legitimately envision a time when a product will be delivered to their home via 3D printer, the same way you get tickets to movies, concerts, or sporting events. What happens to logistics networks when the printer is able to use composites, and instead of making lampshades, can deliver complex aircraft parts? The day, it seems, is coming, and sooner than anyone may have expected.
We have seen over the years, that technology can result in "creative destruction" of existing businesses, and in some cases, entire industries. (Been to a Borders book store lately?) In logistics, we've already seen how digital technology can transform supply chains. Remember when you used to draw goods from your supplier and then send them on to your customer? More and more these days, your customers interact online directly with your suppliers, who deliver the orders right to your clients without your ever having to touch the goods.
What are 3D printers going to destroy? Although that remains to be seen, one thing is certain: Creative destruction is just around the corner, and it will rock our (logistics) world.