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How UPS is Investing in 3D Printing

 

The world of rapid prototyping and 3D printing is definitely ever expanding, bringing about opportunities for development and economic gain. One of the recent corporations to expand their rapid prototyping and 3D printing business happens to be the United Parcel Service (UPS), which they have done in order to stay ahead of a trend that might threaten to tarnish this small yet lucrative side of their business.

 

Hence, the US based shipping company has expanded their rapid prototyping services to Europe and Asia. Along with their main service of delivering packages, UPS also gets an undisclosed revenue portion from shipping and storing parts for different manufacturers. UPS would lose a large client base if these manufacturers began to 3D print their own parts, hence obliterating the need for shipping anything anywhere. In order to counter this imminent threat, UPS has decided to jump the rapid prototyping services bandwagon, looking to offer 3D printing and rapid prototyping services for plastic parts. Multifaceted mobile parts, nozzles, prototype soap dispensers, brackets, etc. will be made and delivered around the world by UPS.

 

According to the UPS Vice President of Corporate Strategy Alan Amling, 3D printing is both an opportunity and a threat for the company. Hence UPS has taken the road of welcoming a technology that would have otherwise threatened them rather than fighting it. Automobile giants such as Volkswagen and Toyota have taken a similar route by partnering with Gett and Uber- which offer ride hailing service for passengers.

 

For their Asia based 3D printing and rapid prototyping facility, Amling is considering either Japan or Singapore. Although UPS has its hub of operations at Cologne in Germany, Amling did not mention whether the company will open a facility in Europe or not.

 

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In the national market though, UPS has already launched itself into 3D printing action. It launched its America based rapid prototyping services in collaboration with a 3D printing company at the outskirts of Atlanta- Fast Radius. The UPS headquarters also shares the same location as Fast Radius. It is reported that a certain stake of Fast Radius was bought by UPS, though unspecified how much. The company has their 3D printing facility at Louisville, Kentucky.

 

Currently, there are 3D printers available at 60 UPS stores across the US that prints out parts making use of thermoplastics of industrial grade. Images can be uploaded by customers for printing at the either the factory of Fast Radius or at any of the UPS store locations. These 3D printed products can then be shipped to any location chosen by the customers.

 

As we all know, 3D printers print out amazing objects by laying down material layer by layer successively. Plastics like ABS and PLA are used as filament, while there is metal 3D printing and bio-printing available at much higher levels. Printers that make quality metal parts can cost over $500k while those that use thermoplastic filament can cost a little less. There are of course, more economical options available for independent hobbyists in the form of desktop 3D printers, but UPS uses the professional grade ones to cater to their customer base.

 

Even though 3D printing technology still has a long way to go for mass production, the technology can be effectively used for rapid prototyping of components that are not to be produced in very high volumes. Large corporations such as General Electric are already working towards bringing 3D printed parts into their production life cycle.

 

One could say that progress in rapid prototyping is a mixed blessing for United Parcel Service. As this technology expands over time economies of scale will be realized so we will see lower costs and prices associated with this innovative technology. Having these lower costs will of course open up other opportunities for other businesses to own their own rapid prototyping 3D printing capabilities, but we most likely won’t see this for another decade. Right now in today’s market, 3D printing on a professional level is still solely industrial.

 

Fast Radius though, works rather quietly when it comes to 3D printing. Their digital manufacturing factory facility is in fact a really quiet venture that occupies a very small corner space at the UPS headquarters in Louisville, KY. There is little or no noise, bustle or grime found at standard factories in that facility. There a about handful of 3D printers working almost noiselessly, busy printing parts of different shapes and sizes.

 

CEO of Fast Radius Rick Smith believes that due to 3D printing, the process of manufacturing will transform from being about where parts are made to where parts are needed.

 

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During a factory visit, one of the printers was seen printing out a black prototype of a plastic hydraulic pump- a process of around seventy two hours. This was being made for a customer of manufacturing based in Germany. According to Smith, jobs like this illustrate the necessity of UPS’s rapid prototyping operations to expand beyond the United States.

 

GoPro, a maker of action cameras is also one of Fast Radius’ customers. The company is using the printers from Fast Radius as well as UPS’s delivery service to get their parts delivered to them by the next day. If GoPro wanted to test out new designs previously, they would have to make mock ups that would take weeks, or even months to be prepared. Ryan Harrison, senior product designer for GoPro says that now his company can make quicker innovations, allowing them to either face failure faster or stumble upon moments of design genius.

 

Keith Schoonmaker, an analyst from Morningstar says that even though rapid prototyping has a long way to go to be incorporated in mass production, it does make sense for UPS to adopt a technology that could potentially replace or supplement its services.

 

Professor of Strategy Richard D’Aveni from Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College believes that instead of waiting a day for parts to arrive from UPS to your doorstep, individual hobbyists can in fact strive for innovation at least six times a day on their own. This will be the reality of 3D printing in the future.

 

 

Ronan Ye – 3E-Rapid Prototyping Services

3E-RP is a rapid prototyping services company based in US & China that serves leading companies and innovators around the world. We run a small, fast and lean operation here to provide as much value to our customers as possible. To learn more about our prototyping services please email us at [email protected].

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