WEST LAFAYETTE, IN—UPS is voicing a desire to be “one of the companies at the forefront” of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it is making strategic investments to make the aspiration a reality.
The company, which in 1907 began as United Parcel Service and grew so familiar that people called it “Brown” because of the color of its delivery trucks, now universally uses the tagline “United Problem Solvers.” One aspect of the firm’s work over the last two years to which that tagline speaks is the setting up of 3D printing services in more than 60 stores in major population centers around the US, Charlie Chung, marketing manager for UPS’s industrial manufacturing segment, said last week in an address at Purdue University’s Smart, Lean Ecosystems conference.
He called the machines “prosumer printers,” saying they are bigger and faster than desktop printers with which consumers are familiar. These printers typically use ABS plastics and soluble supports. They turn out, for example, engineering parts, functional prototypes, acting props, architectural models and fixtures for cameras, lights and cables. “They are helping out many companies with prototyping and engineering design and testing,” he added.
On top of that investment, which Chung declined to specify, UPS in May rolled out its first partnership with SAP and Fast Radius–for an “automated industrial 3D printing factory” near its WorldPort air hub located in Louisville, KY.
So while the distributed “prosumer printers” at UPS Stores give the company broad geographic coverage, the “3D printing factory” addresses its need for “higher volume, mass-customized production,” or more industrial 3D printing processes, as well as more industrial materials like thermoplastics and metals, Chung said.
The plan is to in either case “meet customers’ needs very quickly” because products printed in the factory as late as midnight each day can be flown to the customer the next morning, he said.
UPS plans to, in partnership with SAP and Fast Radius, build another 3D printing factory in Singapore this year, UPS announced last month. UPS used money from its strategic enterprise fund to purchase an equity position in Fast Radius, Chung said in an interview with Smart Manufacturing magazine. He declined to specify the investment.
“This is really exciting because we’re now able to do on-demand manufacturing,” he said at the conference. That means customers can augment their core production capabilities with UPS.
UPS already had the ability to help customers with light assembly and repair work–through its contract logistics division. Fast Radius will help provide customer consultation on design alternatives and production techniques. The Fast Radius crew can recommend the appropriate 3D printing process, such as fused deposition modeling, stereolithography, selective laser sintering, polyjet or direct metal laser sintering, Chung said in an interview with Smart Manufacturing.
One way the “3D printing factory” could be used is for long-tail service parts inventory. Customers could stop holding inventory for many low-demand spare parts and instead “just store scans of the spare parts and print them off as needed,” Chung said at the conference.
“There are a lot of challenges in the supply chain,” he added. “There are high inventory costs. There are long lead times. With this new capability and moving this efficiency frontier out, we can now re-think the old adage ‘faster, better, cheaper–pick any two’.”
Distributed, on-demand, 3D printing has moved “beyond the polymer stage,” Chung said. “We can do things with advanced thermoplastics and metals and things that are beyond what you are familiar with in terms of smaller 3-D printers. We can do things like mass customization and actually fulfill that promise of having similar types of products, all slightly different for meeting a variety of different customers’ requirements.”
UPS, he pointed out, last year had $58 billion in revenue, and $9.5 billion was not from delivering small packages.
The company is now pushing the concept of “smart operations,” which he said “integrates the entire supply chain, allowing for more flexible and nimble adjustments amid changing conditions” like mass customization.
Watch for ‘smart pipes’
UPS is monitoring the Fourth Industrial Revolution from several vantage points. One of them is “connected products,” Chung said.
He introduced conference-goers to the idea of the “smart pipe.”
“There are companies out there that are adding flow meters to pipes,” Chung said. “So that you can, through wireless or cellular or GPS connectivity, go beyond the physical functionality of products and add a whole new levels of value creation.”
Such a pipe would not only notice on its own that productivity was varying but also proactively ask for a repairman and order replacement parts when it sensed the start of a blockage.
The world is “just in the infancy of developing smart products,” he said, and manufacturers can expect “an explosion of benefits that can occur much like the connected Internet occurred with standalone computers” two decades ago.