3-D printing: A Potential Game Changer for Logistics

Context of Transport Climate Action

3-D printing, officially known as additive manufacturing, has the potential to become the biggest single disruptive phenomenon to impact global industry since mass production lines were introduced early in the twentieth century. With 3-D printing an idea can be produced directly from a computer design to a tangible product, skipping many traditional manufacturing steps. Additionally, manufacturing can take place anywhere in the world where the 3D printers are available. It is likely that this will cause new businesses to emerge and well-established businesses may fail2.

Manufacturing products using 3-D printing technology can change the traditional approach to manufacturing completely. It can for instance eliminate the need for expensive component assembly and creates the freedom to change product designs on the spot. Consequently, logistics operations and supply chain design will have to change. Products could be produced closer to the consumer markets (local-to-local), and especially for remote locations, 3-D printing could reshape the transport needs. For example: spare parts for machinery on board of ships could be produced on the spot instead of having to fly them in. All these on-the-spot productions could drastically decrease transport movements and thus reduce the negative effects on climate change.


3-D printing is the process of joining materials to make tangible objects from 3-D computer models. Usually 3-D printers build a product layer upon layer. The main markets where 3-D printing is already applied include:

  • consumer products such as toys, fashion and jewelry;
  • automotive parts for prototyping and creating custom parts;
  • medical and dental applications including assistive, surgical and prosthetic devices; and
  • Aerospace light-weight niche components.

Research on 3-D printing however is ongoing in fields such as food, metal/ electric components and building materials.

Although in the current form 3-D printing is a niche market, this innovation can have a strong impact on logistics. The main impact on logistics stems from:

  • Simplification of the supply chain through elimination of parts and end product assembly, potentially leading to a reduction of logistics costs and CO2
  • Relocation of production. 3-D printing is a very automated and standardized process, and therefore requires a lower proportion of low-skilled workers in the overall production process. As a result, sourcing and/or manufacturing in lower-wage countries becomes of less importance. This could furthermore decrease the length and complexity of the supply chain, improving the time-to-market and lower CO2

The images show how drastic supply chains change when 3-D printing is applied. A traditional supply chain requires far more transport.

Traditional supply chain34


Supply chain with 3-D printing component



3-D printing is still in a development stage. In a position paper, IBM however states that companies should already take steps to see whether 3-D printing will have an effect on their business, because:

  • Product design and retailing will be influenced greatly by interactions with customers;
  • Competitive dynamics will change radically; and
  • Supply chains will become more simple, flexible and localized.

The actual implementation of 3-D printing requires users to purchase a 3-D printing machine, or to hire the services of a local 3-D printing service provider. To be able to produce 3-D printed products, computer models must be made thus 3-D software should be available. Alternative methods, which are being researched are 3-D copying machines that could scan an object and reproduce its shape. The equipment needed to scan the object should then be available as well.


  • Through 3-D printing supply chains can be simplified and production locations may be located closer to their market.
  • This can have impact on the transport movements, leading to a more sustainable supply chain.
  • The effect on emissions is however unsure. A recent analysis by IBM on the environmental impact of 3-D printing in four different markets show mixed results.
  • Apart from supply-chain benefits, 3-D printing allows the design process of new products to be radically changed because prototypes can be rapidly produced.
  • 3-D printing also allows a greater level of customization of products.

Potential for scaling up

Large-scale application of 3-D printing could have a major impact on worldwide manufacturing. In the current stage, 3-D printing is mainly applicable in a few niche markets, such as medical, automotive and aerospace applications. In these markets it is mainly used for other purposes than optimizing the environmental performance of products. Larger scale adoption of 3-D printing will allow for a better judgment of its environmental benefits.

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Global, Mitigation, Freight, Technology




Robbert Janssen Robbert.janssen@tno.nl