Industry perspectives

2015 Commercial Transportation Trends

Things are going so well for freight firms that it’s time to start worrying about the next real danger to the industry: 3D printing.

All in all, the commercial transportation industry is in an enviable position. Fuel prices have tumbled and are not likely to return to stratospheric levels anytime soon. Traffic volumes, especially in the United States and some developing countries, are strong and forecast to improve further as the impact of the recent severe recession recedes. Moreover, the enormity of the downturn forced most transportation firms to cut costs sharply and identify efficiency opportunities in their operations just to stay above water. The success of those efforts has streamlined many of these companies significantly, putting them in a position to continue taking advantage of real earnings growth even as they add jobs and expand.

2016 Commercial Transportation Trends

When times are good, as they are now, transportation companies would be wise to shed short-termitis and examine the real but not immediately obvious disruptions that may be on the horizon — to anticipate today rather than react later. One structural change that we believe should be given careful consideration is not even in current discussions among transportation company management, but it will have to be before long. That development is 3D printing. Seen by manufacturers as a way to streamline operations, improve quality, and lower costs, 3D printing has substantial implications for both domestic and international freight businesses, particularly in reducing the importance of some transportation lanes while possibly opening up new ones.

The contours of the threat

Perhaps the salient way that 3D printing could disrupt the transportation sector is through its impact on what goes into a product ( Traditionally manufactured items often have dozens or even hundreds of parts that must be produced separately, delivered to a factory, and then assembled. A product made on a 3D printer, by contrast, generally has far fewer parts.

3D Printing’s Impact on the Transportation Industry

As 3D printing becomes more common, many products, their parts, or the raw materials needed in their manufacture can be made locally — reducing or eliminating the need to ship them to market. Footwear and toys, for example, are likely to require much less shipping in the future because they both have relatively higher shipping costs and are highly suitable for 3D printing.

A good example is General Electric’s jet fuel nozzles. Under the traditional method, this component contained 18 separate parts made from a variety of raw materials. All of these parts had to be machined, cast, brazed, and welded before final assembly. Now, the nozzles are made from a single alloy using 3D printers with a process known as additive manufacturing, in which successive layers of the alloy are melted, shaped, cut with lasers, cooled, and then laid down on top of each other to produce the finished part. These nozzles are lighter, more durable, and more fuel-efficient than conventionally manufactured ones, GE says.

Or consider the Strati, a car designed by Phoenix-based Local Motors. Whereas typical cars have tens of thousands of parts, the Strati has fewer than 50. The car’s body is made from thermoplastics on a 3D printer; nonprinted parts include the motor, transmission, wheels, and steering column. You won’t see a Strati on the highway anytime soon (the maximum speed is around 40 mph, and the car doesn’t meet requirements for highway use), but it may not be long before someone in your neighborhood is tooling around in one of these electric vehicles, which will weigh about two-thirds of what a typical car weighs and will sell for between US$18,000 and $30,000.

As more types of products are manufactured in this way — direct to a finished good instead of assembled from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of parts — the need to procure parts from multiple sources around the globe will be diminished. And that, in turn, will eliminate or greatly reduce component and materials shipments, a mainstay of many transportation-sector business models today.

Fully 41% of air cargo and 37% of ocean container shipments are threatened by 3D printing.

This probable shift will come atop some weakness in lucrative global commercial transportation lanes resulting from re-shoring efforts, in which products and parts makers, hoping to avoid rising labor costs, piracy, and quality issues in low-cost nations, have begun to move manufacturing back to their home markets. Although 3D printing (strategy+business) is mostly used to create prototypes today, as it becomes integral to full-blown production in the next few years — initially in areas like tooling products and custom jewelry and later in finished mechanical products — it could add significant momentum to the re-shoring trend.

Who gets hurt

In a recent Strategy& analysis of nearly two dozen industry sectors, we found that as much as 41 percent of the air cargo business and 37 percent of the ocean container business is at risk because of 3D printing. Roughly a quarter of the trucking freight business is also vulnerable, due to the potential decline in goods that start as air cargo or as containers on ships and ultimately need some form of overland transport. Rail companies are not as vulnerable because the goods being hauled — typically bulk materials like coal, grains, and liquids — don’t lend themselves to other transport modes.

Drilling down into this data, we identified which industries are most likely to reduce their reliance on commercial shipping because of 3D manufacturing. Using suitability for 3D printing as one gauge and the percentage of total transportation costs as the other, we found that footwear, toys, ceramic products, electronics, and plastics have the highest potential for disruption. Sectors such as perishables and pharmaceuticals, however, find 3D printing a less viable alternative.

Footwear, toys, ceramic products, electronics, and plastics have the most potential for disruption.

How to respond

The tipping point for 3D printing is still a few years away, so we’re not suggesting that transport companies make major investments or wholesale changes to accommodate the arrival of this technology. But we do think a diagnostic review is critical, so that transportation companies have a clear picture of and anticipate well what their options are as the volume and variety of products made on 3D printers start to increase.

Ranging from least to most proactive, the options include:

  • Stay the course. This is the right choice for transport companies that don’t believe 3D printing will make an appreciable difference in their customer accounts.
  • Rebalance. This is the right move for transport companies that believe 3D printing will transform some of their product categories but not others. It involves shifting the portfolio toward products less likely to experience disruption.
  • Adjust network. This is the right strategy if transport companies believe their current domestic networks are not well positioned for the rise of localized production and transportation. It involves assessing and redesigning networks for more localized moves.
  • Introduce new services. At transportation companies that believe 3D printing will create some fundamentally new opportunities (for instance, allowing them to set themselves up as “feedstock supply chain champions”), it will make sense to lay the groundwork for some completely new logistics services.

Historically, transportation companies’ record of anticipating the impact of technological change has been spotty. Their M.O. has typically been to wait until a technology arrives in full force and then figure out a response. The uncertain timetable for 3D printing’s broader adoption — and the impossibility of knowing for sure which companies will embrace it — might tempt transportation executives to opt for a reactive approach to this technology, too. But the depth of the changes that 3D printing will ultimately bring to manufacturing argues against passivity. Instead of “wait and see,” we advise peeking around the corner to figure out whether there might be any steps worth taking now.


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