The Impact of 3D Printing on the US Postal Service

This week a report by the Inspector General of the United States Postal Service caught our eye because it looked at the horizon and wondered what if?

The “what if” was the impact of three dimensional (3D) printing.

The report’s Executive Summary notes:

We are living in a world where it is possible to convert digital files at one location into physical objects at another, transforming bits into atoms.

We can do this with 3D printing, a technology that turns customers into creators and has the potential to make a significant impact on the $10.5 trillion global manufacturing industry.

3D printers build solid objects usually one razor-thin layer at a time using plastics, powders, metals, polymers, or other materials.

New techniques are rapidly expanding the capabilities of this technology, such as producing surfaces as smooth as glass. People are already using 3D printing to create a wide range of things, from airplane parts, dental implants, and custom-fit hearings aids to personalized iPhone cases and tiny action figures. In addition, scientists are experimenting with using 3D printing to replicate and replace living human tissues, producing a “bioink” that could someday revolutionize medical care.

As 3D printing spreads and moves production closer to consumption, it could have major implications for everyone along existing supply chains, including the U.S. Postal Service. 

The report lives out a favourite McLeod Governance maxim that sometimes the best audit report is the audit report never written.  To this effect it gives wise counsel that if not followed now will be the subject of a damning audit opinion no doubt in the years ahead:

To capture the potential benefit of 3D printing, the Postal Service must at least maintain its current delivery network and keep pace with evolving consumer needs.

Many 3D printed products will be manufactured closer to where consumers live but will still need last-mile delivery.

Businesses wishing to put their 3D printed products in the hands of consumers as quickly and conveniently as possible may need the ubiquitous postal network. And if people someday print many items directly, they may frequently need 3D printing supplies such as powders and binding materials delivered.

No other organization covers as much ground as frequently and reliably as the Postal Service. Moreover, the generally small and lightweight nature of 3D printed items makes them a perfect fit for delivery by the Postal Service. Private delivery firms already use the Postal Service for final delivery of many of their own small packages because the Postal Service’s network allows it to deliver these packages more cost effectively. 

This report is the perfect mid summer / mid winter tome to engross oneself in.  The future is upon us – the question, as put by the Inspector General, is – who will win it?

The 3D printing revolution has only just begun.

3D printing has the potential to be amazingly disruptive, and some people think the changes brought on by it will exceed even those of the Internet. While the Internet did much to overcome the challenges of time and distance by making everything local, 3D printing could take things to the next level by making on- demand products at any location.

The question is, who will win from a 3D printing revolution and who will lose? By embracing this groundbreaking technology, the Postal Service could put a compelling 21st century twist on its historical mission to serve citizens and facilitate commerce. 


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