The print run on port demand

3D printing - coming to a house near you soon. Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi 3D printing - coming to a house near you soon. Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi

At various points this year you may have glimpsed a headline, or overhead a conversation in a bar about 3d printing that momentarily piqued your interest, but by the time you got home you’d forgotten all about following up to find out more.

However, that 3d ‘chat’ is getting louder and harder to forget and there now seems to be good reason to start paying proper attention. 3d printing has been hailed as the future of manufacturing. The printing technology works by building up layer upon layer of material - typically plastic - to build solid objects.

The opportunities that this technology offers have got people thinking about how the not-too-distant future might look in terms of product supply and demand.

Gone is the need for low-cost labour economies knocking out widgets; instead the consumer can be fed by local production, perhaps even owning a 3d printer to print out their own goods. This may sound like pie in the sky thinking, but the technology is real and the costs for printers are coming down quickly. Some enthusiasts claim that we will all have easy access to cheap 3d printing within 10 years.

If that transpires it could fundamentally change international trade, and container carriers and ports should be the most concerned. We all know that in the age of just-in-time supply chains that holding a huge inventory of spare parts is not good for cash flow or for the agility of a business. Instead, 3d printing will allow companies to print parts as required. Move over just-in-time, move in right-on-time.

Conversely bulk carriers and ports might want to prepare for a shift in fortunes as the movement of raw materials is ramped up to get product materials to the consumers.
An interesting article on the topic on Kalmar’s Port 2060 blog also highlights the opportunity that 3d printing presents in the creation of miniature models for the port industry. Printed miniature models of cargo handling equipment can “ease the R&D effort”, points out Kalmar, while models of entire terminals could help pinpoint bottlenecks and aid marketing and communication efforts.

While it’s hard to get too excited by a technology that for the majority of us is out of sight, out of mind, the potential offered by 3d printing should force us to take a long hard look at the implications for our industry in the medium term.

Ugly for some, beautiful for others, this is a reality that cannot be ignored. Start planning the ‘what ifs’ now and be ready for changing market fundamentals, whether they work in your favour or not.

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