I often get asked what I consider to be the biggest threat to the transport industry and the answer is pretty simple – technology.
More than anything else the advances in technology are putting enormous pressure on the traditional modes of transport – road, rail, sea and air. The interesting thing is when I say technology is the biggest threat, most people nod knowingly and start talking about autonomous vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles may well be the ‘it’ technology of the moment but, as cool as they are, they are not the technology threat I tend to think of. Autonomous vehicles offer an opportunity as much as they present a threat to the transport industry. What I consider a threat, however, is a threat pure and simple. That threat is 3D printing or, as it is more correctly known, additive manufacturing technology.
Now, believe it or not, additive manufacturing has been around in rudimentary form since the 1980’s. It is not a new thing. It is a well-developed area of technology that is about to send us off on a new S-curve – one that will fundamentally change the way we make and trade goods and potentially spell doom for much of the transport industry.
A new class of high-speed industrial 3D printers from companies like Carbon, HP and Desktop Metal, are enabling this change and quickly becoming an integral part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As pointed out in an article written for the World Economic Forum by Ric Fulop, CEO and Co-Founder of Desktop Metal Inc., “tooling” – the process of designing and engineering the tools necessary to manufacture parts – was the technology that fuelled the first industrial revolution. That process allowed the manufacture of goods to move from cottage industry humans to factory-based machines and resulted in the production of complex mechanical inventions like the steam engine. As those machines drove new economies of scale, raw materials travelled from developing nations to industrial ones, and cost-effective goods flowed back to other nations across the world creating global trade.
Consequently, the transport industry grew rapidly to ship raw materials around the world to the factories that made parts. Those parts then got shipped to other factories that assembled them into product components, and they were then shipped all over the world to even more factories that made more and more complex final products.
At any given time, trillions of dollars in capital and time is spent moving all those goods by truck, train, boat or plane.
But these new 3D printing machines are capable of printing those same complex parts at a cost that is lower than traditional techniques. The costs for low to mid-range volumes are almost equivalent to those associated with injection moulding. As this technology rapidly matures, the points at which the process breaks even will improve, and that will enable an era of borderless production.
In this new model, only raw materials are shipped and factories around the world digitally print parts as they need them. There is no tooling and no waste of raw materials. Parts are no longer stuck on trucks, trains, ships and planes. They travel as digital files to the locations where they need to be printed.
This is real and this is now. Once a digitally fabricated part reaches cost parity with conventional processes then other economic forces – such as cost and speed – will promote widespread adoption. There will, in theory, be no need for inventory, tooling or shipping. There will, in theory, be far less need for transport of any kind. There is the real threat.