UPS Product Managers Experiment With The World Of 3D Printing

UPS makes deliveries today, but will the arrival of 3D printing change all of this?
UPS makes deliveries today, but will the arrival of 3D printing change all of this?
Image Credit: Ken Teegardin

When someone mentions UPS to you, what do you generally think of? Probably one of their brown trucks that we see everywhere or perhaps it is one of their delivery employees dressed head-to-toe in their traditional brown uniform. However, this may all be changing. The product managers at UPS believe that they have seen the future and it’s all about 3D printing.

What 3D Printing Means To UPS

As I suspect that we all know, UPS is in the business of delivering packages from one location to another as quickly as possible. That is exactly why the product managers at UPS became so alarmed when 3D printers first started showing up. If you are not familiar with 3D printers, they are machines that use a digital image of a solid object that someone wants to make and then slices that image up into thousands of layers. The printer then proceeds to print each of those layers one-at-a-time in sequence. The actual printing can be done in plastic, metal, or some other material.

The 3D printing technology burst on the scene just a little while ago. Since then it has been growing at an amazing rate: 34% per year for the past three years. The reason that 3D printers caught the attention of the UPS product managers was because they saw it as a potential threat that could upset their product development definition. If people can print what they need, be it a spare part or a complete system, then there would be no reason to have to order something that would have to be shipped. 3D printing is still very new, so nobody yet knows how all of this is going to work out.

UPS is not the only package delivery service that is taking a close look at 3D printing. The other major package delivery service, FedEx has admitted that it is carefully studying the technology in order to determine how it will be impacted by it Additionally Amazon has already filed some patents regarding how they would use 3D printing to shorten the delivery time of some of their products to their customers. The UPS product managers believe that more and more companies are going to start to adopt 3D printing as a part of their manufacturing processes.

How UPS Is Preparing For The Future

Although a future in which you and I could just walk out to our garage, turn on the 3D printer and have anything that we wanted made before our eyes is probably unrealistic, 3D printers have the potential to change UPS’ business. One analysis has taken a look at products that are being shipped from China to Europe and has decided that only 2% – 3% could be 3D printed today. However, that is still a great deal of packages that could go away almost overnight.

The UPS product managers are not taking the arrival of this new technology sitting down. Instead, what they are planning on doing is meeting it head on. They have installed 100 industrial grade 3D printers at their distribution hub in Louisville, Ky. What the product managers want to find out is if the use of the 3D printers can result in supply chains becoming shorter and the need for shipping services decreasing.

The question that the product managers are trying to find an answer to is if UPS should feel threatened by the arrival of 3D printing technology or if they should see it as a new opportunity that they need to find a way to capitalize on. They are betting big on their experiment: the plan is to expand their 3D printing capability by adding another 900 3D printers next year. Depending on how things turn out, UPS may open similar 3D printing facilities outside of the U.S. in the future. There are a number of issues that still have to be worked out. Printing speed is fairly slow and the lawyers will have to determine who bears liability for the products that are printed.

What All Of This Means For You

UPS is currently a very successful package delivery company. However, the UPS product managers have detected that there is a disruptive technology now on the market, 3D printing, that may decrease or eliminate the need to ship packages. They are taking steps to learn more about 3D printing.

3D printing is a very new technology and has only been around for a few years. It allows someone to create a drawing of a solid object and then print it out in a sequence of thousands of stacked layers. Other shipping companies like FedEx see this threat also and are keeping a close eye on the technology. UPS has installed 100 3D printers in one of its hubs in order to closely study how businesses are going to go about using this new technology. They will grow their facility next year and may even expand internationally.

The UPS product managers are showing some real initiative here that will look good on their product manager resume. 3D printing is brand new and right now does not represent a threat to UPS. However, they are already taking steps to study just what the impact of this new technology is going to be on the products that they are offering today just like their product manager job description tells them to do. What they learn from this investigation is going to help them to prepare the company for what is certainly to come as the 3D printing technology matures over time.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think UPS is doing the right thing or are they moving too fast because 3D printing is still so immature?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Have you ever been broke? I mean really, really broke? If you have, then you know what you have to do when you need to buy something. It could be something as simple as toilet paper, or coins to do your laundry. You need money and you have none. When this happens, you go on a search – you turn over everything in your home in order to find those few coins that may have gotten away from you. The sofa is a great place to look – you always know that you’ll find something that has slid between the cushions. As product managers, sometimes there is not enough money to do what we know needs to be done according to our product development definition. When this happens, we’ve got to go and check out the sofa…