Despite advances in the speed, cost, and quality of 3D printing, barriers to entry still remain for many companies. The machines are not always cost-efficient. Sometimes only small-batch jobs are needed. And the printers and products can take up space and resources.

Indeed, according to a recent survey of 120 manufacturers by PwC, 42% believed the machines were too expensive, 25% saw them as too slow, and 33% raised issues around the quality of the products.

UPS and SAP are proposing a solution to these problems.

On Wednesday at the SAPPHIRE NOW conference, the distribution and software giants merged in order to provide an on-demand network to enable companies to print and ship 3D printed products through a streamlined system. The partners plan to link a global logistics network with 3D printers at UPS locations in the US. They will also link to UPS’s global hub in Louisville, KY, with Fast Radius (previously Cloud DDM).

Although only US-based UPS locations will be used, any international company will be able to access the network, and some orders can even be shipped the same day.

The partners believe that the network will bring several key advantages to these types of businesses:

  • Manufacturers wanting to reduce inventory for slow-moving parts
  • Manufacturers with short production runs where the cost to create the mold or tooling could make these orders too expensive for traditional manufacturing
  • Manufacturers and retailers of custom/semi-custom goods as additive manufacturing allows cost-effective customization of goods
  • Industrial designers and engineers who want high-quality rapid prototypes delivered as fast as one day
  • Entrepreneurs, startups, and manufacturing who don’t currently have access to 3D printers or have limited capital and time and will use 3D printing for rapid prototyping and manufacturing of initial production runs

TechRepublic spoke to Alan Amling, VP of Global Logistics and Marketing for UPS, and Gil Perez, Senior Vice President of Digital Assets and IoT at SAP, to learn more about the potential of the network. “We want to make 3D printing accessible to thousands of manufacturers who were not using this time- and cost-saving process previously,” said Amling.

SEE: Can 3D printing spark a green revolution in consumer products? (TechRepublic)

One key area, Amling and Perez emphasized, is the savings potential for businesses. Currently, there is $1.8 trillion in the inventory being held in various warehouses across the US. The system would allow the reduction of this inventory. “It’s not just about comparing one price to another; it’s about the total cost of ownership,” said Perez. “We believe that the industrial aspects of 3DP is where we’ll see an impact on the whole economy.”

The concept could be extended to in-house printing operations at universities or maker labs, allowing them to alleviate “significant issues around order entry, tracking, reprints, costing, and archiving for hundreds of students’ work,” said Amling.

SEE: How GE is using 3D printing to unleash the biggest revolution in large-scale manufacturing in over a century (PDF download) (TechRepublic)

3D printing experts see this as a great development in the additive manufacturing ecosystem.

“I like seeing solutions that combine manufacturing and logistics,” said Spencer Wright, VP of Product at nTopology, who researches and writes about metal 3D printing.

Pete Basiliere, analyst at Gartner, agrees that this is a net positive. “Workflow software is a critical missing link in the use of 3D printers in production, for-pay and other situations,” he said. “Managing the workflow was not an issue when organizations had one 3D printer attached to one PC or workstation. Today, 3D print service bureaus such as UPS have multiple printers and multiple clients, and the number of 3D print jobs is multiples higher than it used to be.”

“UPS and SAP appear to have recognized this situation and taken steps to address it,” said Basiliere.

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