Companies in metro Atlanta are delving into the world of 3D printing.

3D printing: the next disruptive technology?

When your refrigerator breaks down, it can take days for a technician to get a replacement part shipped.

Soon, though, the technician might be able to use a 3D printer to produce the part within hours.

Some even envision a day when consumers could use a 3D printer at home to make items they need on their own, rather than going to a store to buy them.

Such capabilities could revolutionize the way consumers buy some items. It could also transform the way manufacturers and businesses get the parts and items they need to operate and serve customers.

“From aerospace to health care to consumer products to toys to medical devices, furniture … what I think you’re going to see is an explosion of use,” said Rick Smith, co-founder of Atlanta-based 3D printing company CloudDDM.

While traditional manufacturing requires the creation of dies or molds that can cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce the first item, 3D printing only requires a digital file with the design of an object. That means manufacturing an item does not require mass production to pay off.

For now, one of the most common uses for 3D printing is development of plastic prototypes for new products conceived by businesses or entrepreneurs.

But some of metro Atlanta’s biggest companies are exploring — and exploiting — 3D printing in different ways.

Home Depot now sells consumer versions of 3D printers in some of its stores and online. Coca-Cola has used 3D printing to prototype package designs and other new concepts.

Coke also has partnered with publicly-traded 3D Systems Corp., of Rock Hill, S.C., on a 3D printer that can produce items with plastic from recycled Coke bottles. Customers for the $1,199 3D printer include tech-savvy young men and families with children interested in the technology, 3D Systems marketing chief Cathy Lewis said, adding that school systems also are interested.

Some UPS Stores have started offering 3D printing, including one in Brookhaven.

Mike Trotter, an entrepreneur working on an idea for reading glasses with a plastic frame that can snap together around the neck when not in use, has had a series of prototypes 3D printed at the Brookhaven UPS Store. He called it “phenomenal” to be able to get “a whole new rendition of my idea” at a shop near his home. “It’s just fabulous for an inventor.”

A competitive threat

UPS has a broader motivation than just adding a new feature at its retail outlets: To get ahead of the disruptions 3D printing could inflict on its business.

Today, industries ranging from electronics to aerospace depend on massive shipments of parts and components between Asia, the United States and Europe every day.

If businesses can produce parts quickly, cheaply and easily on-site instead of in China or elsewhere, that could cut into the global market for shipping and logistics that UPS depends on — while bringing some manufacturing back to the United States.

In an effort to get ahead of the issue, UPS has invested in startup CloudDDM. The two companies have together opened a facility with more than 100 industrial 3D printers, located next to UPS’s Louisville, Ky., air hub.

The venture can take orders from businesses for a 3D printed item in the afternoon and ship it overnight to arrive the next morning.

UPS is “not going to stand aside and just see what happens” with 3D printing, said Scott Deutsch, a spokesman for America Makes, a federally-funded public-private partnership to foster innovations such as 3D printing.

“They’re going to jump in and say, ‘Let’s make that happen. We have a logistics platform that can deliver a package across the nation in a matter of hours. How does 3D printing play into that?”

UPS already faces competition from companies like Valencia, Calif.-based Stratasys Direct Manufacturing and Belgium-based 3D printing company Materalise.

However, UPS’s deep relationships with businesses in the U.S. and around the world for shipping and logistics give it an advantage.

“There’s going to be a lot more competition for them in this type of environment,” said John Haber, CEO of Spend Management Experts, an Atlanta supply chain management consulting firm. But, “UPS is dabbling in a lot of different areas in order to decrease their dependency on revenue from moving packages.”

Time will tell how much of a market there is for UPS in 3D printing, according to Joe Kempton, a 3D printing analyst with research firm Canalys. Compared to other 3D printing services, “UPS is kind of late to the game,” Kempton said.

On-demand production

CloudDDM’s industrial 3D printers, worth $400,000 each and capable of more precise accuracy than consumer 3D printers, can be automated to begin printing when an order is placed online, Smith said.

The company aims to expand to 1,000 printers and eventually add more 3D printing locations at UPS’s international air hubs.

So far, CloudDDM customers have included Georgia Pacific, which wanted prototype mounting brackets for paper towel dispensers; Whirlpool, which used the service to prototype refrigerator trays; aerospace companies and others.

Smith said an engineer in Seattle who wants a prototype “hits the button on his way out the door in the afternoon … and it’s on his desk by 10 a.m.”

And if a company needs 40 parts and CloudDDM has 40 printers available, it can print one on each machine for a quick turnaround, Smith said.

It’s “a natural part of a larger supply chain,” he said, allowing companies to print some parts on demand, instead of holding all of it as inventory in a variety of locations to be able to get it to where it is needed quickly.

UPS’s archrival FedEx has not yet moved into 3D printing, which the company said it will “continue to evaluate … from different perspectives relative to our transportation, logistics, supply chain and printing businesses.”

Dutch shipping company TNT Express, which FedEx proposes to acquire, offers 3D printing services in Germany. And Amazon has filed patent applications for mobile 3D printing trucks.

Some companies say 3D printing can only work for a small fraction of items produced today.

“3D printing fills a niche right now, but when you’re looking to mass produce things very rapidly, that’s where the jury’s still out as far as how feasible 3D printing is going to be,” Haber said.

Products of the future

In the future, however, many in 3D printing envision a day when any product can be custom-made, from shoes to jewelry.

The technology allows for specs that can’t be delivered in traditional mass production, Smith said. To cool an engine, for example, a manufacturer might drill holes to run water or air through for cooling. But with 3D printing, that object can more easily be manufactured with a tunnel that curves through the object as needed to cool it.

“Because you’re creating things in layers, one layer at a time, the printer doesn’t care how complex the object is. With conventional manufacturing you’re limited to what the tools are able to produce.”

Ultimately, Smith said, metro Atlanta could become a hub for 3D printing, given Georgia Tech’s expertise in technology combined with the logistics expertise at UPS and other local companies.

3D printing is “potentially an extremely disruptive technology,” he said.

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