August 4, 2013

3D Printing at UPS

Filed under: 3D printing,Additive Manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 07:03

Last week, UPS announced that it would begin to offer 3D printing services. Initially, the company will test the service on a trial basis at several UPS stores in San Diego, California. The company is targeting small businesses, startup companies, and retail customers using the uPrint 3D printer from Stratasys. The machine builds strong parts, mostly models and prototypes, in ABS plastic.

UPS faces many challenges. The first is making the process efficient to the point where the parts are competitive with alternatives. The second: making it profitable. A third is dealing with customers that must provide design data or information that is suitable for 3D printing. In a story published by Forbes, Daniel Remba of UPS said the company plans to also offer design services, which is surprising and it could open a can of worms. Given the problems that customers can experience with 3D model data, I suppose it makes sense to offer this service, but only if customers are willing to pay for it. Otherwise, it’s a losing proposition from the start.

Another challenge will be the turn around time. For prototyping, businesses need concept models and early prototypes quickly. Waiting days is often not an option. To deliver within a day or two, UPS will require many uPrint machines, or other types of machines, to reduce bottlenecks. This could become expensive, especially when considering the investment necessary to develop a start-to-finish system that streamlines the pre- and postprocessing of jobs. At the front end, many jobs will arrive in a given day. Some of those jobs will be complex and require a lot of attention and interactions with customers. At the back end, parts will require clean-up and possibly hand-work, as well as packaging and delivery—which, of course, are two strengths of UPS.

Even with these and other challenges, I believe that this is one of the first retail efforts in 3D printing on a national scale that has a reasonable chance of success. UPS has partnered with a veteran company that I’m sure will do all it can to help increase the likelihood of success. Unlike many other 3D printing processes, the uPrint’s FDM technology will permit UPS to automate the removal of support material, an otherwise expensive labor component that might have killed this service from the start if the wrong 3D printing technology had been selected. Offering design services is interesting, although anything but easy. Can UPS pull it off? Only time will tell.