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“3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but today there’s really an explosion going on,” says Alan Amling, Vice President of Marketing at United Parcel Services (UPS) Global Logistics & Distribution. “Every week you see something new about it in the press.”

Amling was addressing the recent 2016 SAP Aerospace & Defense Innovation Days event in Dallas, and the audience of industry insiders definitely agreed with him.

3D printing is a hot topic these days, and it’s easy to understand why.

For starters, the technology seems to spark incredible creativity. Just consider the very clever people who have used it to bring classical painting to the blind or create prosthetic shells for injured turtles.

But as Amling explains, 3D printing is also going mainstream. And as it does, the technology is likely to revolutionize traditional manufacturing and redefine our notion of supply chain logistics.

Changing the Old Rules of Manufacturing

Amling is an expert when it comes to 3D printing and the additive manufacturing processes that it supports. He gives TED talks on the subject and has even testified before the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

In his presentations, Amling makes the point that manufacturing has followed the same rules of mass production for decades.

“But there are a number of advantages that make additive manufacturing especially attractive,” Amling says, “like no minimum quantities, no upfront tooling costs, faster production times, and more cost-effective customizations.”

While he is not suggesting that 3D printing will replace every production process, Amling does think the technology could transform manufacturing in much of the same way that e-commerce disrupted traditional retail.

“The 3D market is expected to triple over the next three years,” says Amling. “If you can imagine that just 5% of manufacturing moves to 3D printing, that would represent $640 billion.”

In fact, Amling envisions 3D printing as part of a larger, more connected digital economy. In his TED talk, he describes a global network where thousands of intelligently connected 3D printers are located in key areas all around the world, creating an elastic, on-demand manufacturing cloud.

“Now that’s shaking up the snow globe,” says Amling.

A New Link in the Supply Chain

SAP’s Aerospace & Defense event was an appropriate venue for Amling’s talk – 3D printing is already making its mark on the industry.

Amling mentions one manufacturer that used additive manufacturing techniques to redesign a fuel nozzle used extensively on the company’s jet engines. The new part – which is now a single solid unit – replaces a nozzle that was once made up of 20 separate components. Another aerospace manufacturer is currently testing out a massive 3D printed front bearing housing, designed to contain 48 airfoils. This titanium structure measures a full one and a half meters across.

But why do Amling and UPS in particular have such a keen interest in 3D printing?

Well, remember that in addition to delivering packages to your front door, UPS is also a global supply chain solution provider.

“We maintain more than 1,000 global field stocking stations,” notes Amling, “and these warehouses store critical spare parts for companies around the world.” So what happens to this significant segment of the business when inventory is stored virtually and can be created using 3D printing?

UPS believes in being ahead of the curve.

Partnering with a company called CloudDDM, UPS is establishing a shared services model at its Louisville, Kentucky supply chain center that could ultimately use up to 1,000 3D printers to make on-demand prototypes and product parts for corporate customers.

Amling advises every company “to be in the game” and to keep up with what is happening in the world of 3D printing.

“Change is going to happen, there’s no way to stop it,” Amling tells the A&D crowd. “So you have to make the decision . . . do you want to be the bug or the windshield?”

Please join me on Twitter at @JohnGWard3.

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