UPS eyes 3D-printing, distribution here

UPS eyes 3D-printing, distribution here

Imagine you need 20 pieces of a uniquely shaped metal bracket urgently. Now imagine getting them delivered to your doorstep the first thing next morning.

That is what logistics giant UPS hopes to offer when it sets up an on-demand 3D-printing and distribution business here in November - the first time it will provide the service outside the United States.

Additive manufacturing, to give 3D-printing its industry name, creates an object by laying materials into a specific shape.

It can theoretically produce almost anything, from a simple souvenir to an artificial knee joint.

UPS already offers 3D-printing services at more than 60 of its business centres in the US. In 2014, it bought a minority stake in additive manufacturing specialist Fast Radius, which opened a factory in Kentucky last year.

The Singapore facility will be the first international partnership between the two firms.

There was "never any question" that Singapore would be the site as its hub location would enable overnight delivery of custom-made items to most Asian cities, UPS Asia-Pacific president Ross McCullough said, while noting that UPS' co-operation with the Singapore Government is "unmatched in the world".

The initiative also reflects the significance of 3D-printing as a disruptive technology to manufacturing and logistics industries.

"There are at least two benefits. First, the virtualisation of inventories. If you don't need a part immediately, you can put (the data) on the cloud and print it later," said Mr McCullough. "This means companies will need less physical space to store their inventories."

Mr Rick Smith, co-founder and chief executive of Fast Radius, said the ability of on-demand 3D- printing to produce objects whenever a customer wants, and at any number required, can also cut down cost and remove the need for mass production in traditional manufacturing.

Having the UPS and Fast Radius services here will contribute to the growth of the 3D-printing ecosystem in Singapore, something the Economic Development Board (EDB) is counting on as a catalyst for manufacturing transformation.

Said EDB logistics director Lee Eng Keat: "3D-printing as a design and prototyping enabler will help transform manufacturing. That is where we are focusing for industries such as medical technologies."

But he told The Straits Times that large-scale adoption, especially among the small and medium-sized enterprises, will take time. He said: "The cost of entry, especially for equipment, has always been somewhat prohibitive. As service bureaus like the UPS facility come on board, local companies can now pay for such services rather than buy the equipment. That's a start.

"Meanwhile, we are working with Spring and trade associations to expose companies to solutions available. We hope sectors such as medtech can soon benefit from the prototyping capabilities. But all this is a work in progress."

This article was first published on September 20, 2016.
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