More than anything, logistics are the biggest hurdle for retailers like Amazon. Managing stock, maintaining warehouses, and shipping orders is a constant juggling act. What if you could cut out all of the hassle, make an item on demand, and deliver it directly to the consumer? A recent patent application from Amazon has that future in mind, but is this doable? Can 3D printing replace the old warehouse model?
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Recently, a patent application surfaced showing how Amazon could implement 3D-printing on demand. Roughly, the idea is this: a consumer orders an item on Amazon, the printing instructions are sent to the closest 3D-printing device, and then shipped out to the consumer when it’s complete. Most interestingly, the 3D printer itself could be “in a warehouse or on a truck.” If Amazon moves forward with these plans, your widgets and thing-a-majigs could theoretically be produced in the same truck that delivers it to your home.
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This isn’t the first futuristic (and slightly dystopian) retail concept to come out of Amazon in recent years — the infamous delivery drone and household one-click buttons stand out as some of the crazier ideas. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that Amazon is continuing to research the realm of 3D-printing: Last year, it began collaborating with Mixee Labs to deliver 3D-printed goods, and that partnership has continued to flourish into 2015.
Keep in mind, this patent application isn’t proof that Amazon actually intends on making a huge move into 3D-printing. Large companies frequently file patents that they never intend to use as a way of exploring concepts and keeping their options open. And even if Amazon does implement these 3D-printing stations in a meaningful capacity, it would have limited utility for the foreseeable future. The patent application lists numerous methods of additive and subtractive manufacturing, but I find it hard to believe Amazon will be able to offer complicated 3D-printed items quickly and affordably in the near future.
For the most part, 3D-printing has been kept to the realm of plastics. Other materials and complex assemblies are possible, but it’s not particularly quick or cost effective as it stands. Fact is, Amazon isn’t going to be 3D-printing an internal combustion engine for you anytime soon. If you’re thinking more along the lines of a cutting board or backscratcher, that seems more plausible. And whether or not Amazon ever mounts 3D printers inside of its delivery fleet, there’s no doubt the core 3D-printing technology will continue to grow in importance.
Author Grant Brunner
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