Typical of the middle-aged nerdy guy that I am, I have always enjoyed science fiction. Often, while watching Star Trek, I marveled as Captain Picard would order some interesting product—say, a cup of Earl Grey tea—from the replicator machine. Somehow, some way, this futuristic device would pull together molecules of various elements to create a perfect cup of tea—always at the right temperature. What a great idea, though rather far-fetched considering current technology.
Yet when you consider advancements in 3-D printing, is it much different from this concept? Of course, it is not nearly as refined, but today's printing technology seems to be moving in that direction.
For example, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just announced that they have developed a new desktop 3-D printer that operates up to 10 times faster than existing commercial models. In announcing this development, MIT said that while most common printers require an hour just to fabricate a few Lego-sized blocks, the new machine can do it in minutes. Key to this technology is a new compact printhead that feeds polymer material through a nozzle at high force. Other researchers at MIT have used a 3-D printer to create new nanofibers that can be used to produce everything from artificial tissue to solar cells.
It is not hard to see how advancements in 3-D printing could eventually change distribution center operations. Already, many DCs perform various kinds of light manufacturing. At Dell distribution centers, computers are assembled with customer-specific components and software before being shipped to end users. Global appliance manufacturers often postpone attaching plugs to the ends of electrical cords until orders reach the DC. This allows them to match the type of connection to the destination country.
There are already companies that utilize 3-D printers to create simple parts. This technology can be especially useful for very slow-moving products, enabling companies to greatly reduce the amount of inventory they keep on hand.
Beyond current capabilities, it is not hard to imagine a future where DCs feature high-speed knitting machines to weave sweaters to customer specs or equipment that prints shoes to the exact measurements of the end user's feet.
Considering the amount of time required to produce and transport products from overseas plants, the use of 3-D printers could reduce leadtimes to minutes from weeks and enable companies to create customized goods that are ready for delivery the same day.
It will be fun to watch to see if what was once science fiction becomes technological reality. Now, if we could only figure out how Scottie beamed products from point A to point B, we might be able to solve that last-mile delivery problem as well.