Amazon’s 3D Printing Trucks: A Quixotic Quest for Zero Delivery Time?

According to reports on and the Wall Street Journal, Amazon filed for a patent in Novmeber 2013 titled, “Providing Services Related to Item Delivery via 3D Manufacturing On Demand.” Here’s the abstract plus a drawing from the patent:

Methods and systems can be provided for providing items manufactured on demand to users. A user request for an item can be received. The item can have 3D manufacturing instructions associated therewith. A delivery method for the item can be determined. A manufacturing apparatus can be selected to manufacture the item based on the 3D manufacturing instructions. Instructions can be sent to the manufacturing apparatus to manufacture the item based on the 3D manufacturing instructions. Delivery instructions can be provided for delivering the item according to the delivery method.

Source: Amazon patent filing
Source: Amazon patent filing

The headlines (including my own) focuses on just one potential embodiment of the idea: sending 3D manufacturing instructions to a truck equipped with a 3D printer that can manufacture an ordered product while enroute to the customer. But the scope of the patent is actually much broader. It discusses, for example, the inclusion of 3D manufacturing instructions in a product catalog associated with an electronic marketplace (such as, which customers can buy and download for their own uses, as well as other fulfillment scenarios, such as customers printing the ordered items at home with their own 3D printers:

In embodiments, the service provider can instruct delivery of the MOD [Manufactured-On-Demand] item to the users. One or more delivery options may be provided by the service provider. In one aspect, the MOD item may be delivered via a 3D manufacturing apparatus owned by the user. For example, the 3D manufacturing instructions can be provided directly to the user, and the MOD item may be produced, using the 3D manufacturing instructions, on a 3D printer at the home or office of the user. In other aspects, a 3D manufacturing apparatus not owned or controlled by the user, but owned or controlled by or otherwise accessible to the service provider, may produce the MOD item using the 3D manufacturing instructions. As a non-limiting example, the MOD item can be produced and stored at a pickup location for the user to retrieve at the convenience of the user, as at [a delivery locker]. As another non-limiting example, the MOD item can be printed or manufactured–for example using a 3D manufacturing apparatus located in a warehouse or on a truck owned by the service provider then delivered to the user according to delivery instructions provided by the user.

Amazon sums up the driving force behind this patent very nicely (emphasis mine): “In the modern age of e-commerce, many items are bought or sold electronically…The multiplicity of items offered may require the electronic marketplace owner/operator to maintain a large inventory requiring sufficient space to store the inventory. An electronic marketplace may also face the challenge of time delays related to the process of finding the selected item among a large inventory. Increased space to store additional inventory may raise costs for the electronic marketplace. Additionally, time delays between receiving an order and shipping the item to the customer may reduce customer satisfaction and affect revenues generated. Accordingly, an electronic marketplace may find it desirable to decrease the amount of warehouse or inventory storage space needed, to reduce the amount of time consumed between receiving an order and delivering the item to the customer, or both.

The groundwork for 3D printing in e-commerce order fulfillment is already happening. For example, UPS started offering 3D printing services in six UPS Store locations in July 2013, and last September the company announced that it was expanding the service to almost 100 locations. Here is an excerpt from the press release:

Over the past year, the six locations saw demand for 3D print continuing to increase across a broad spectrum of customers. This upward trend is in line with the 3D print industry, which also experienced rapid growth…During the 2013 pilot program, the 3D print services were used by small businesses, startups, inventors, artists and a wide range of professionals to transform their ideas into reality. From inventors who patented innovative product designs to entrepreneurs who prototyped an idea and successfully delivered a retail-ready product to market, there were many success stories.

Therefore, while the headlines of 3D printers on trucks grab our attention, the bigger takeaway from the Amazon patent application is that 3D printing — whether in our homes and offices, retail stores and distribution centers, or on trucks — will play a growing role in e-commerce and order fulfillment in the years ahead. In many cases, especially as the capabilities of consumer 3D printers improve and their costs decrease, we will completely bypass distribution centers, stores, and trucks and manufacture the products we order ourselves. Actually, what we will order and pay for on sites like will not be a physical product, but the manufacturing instructions and the printing materials. In other cases, where more sophisticated and expensive 3D printing capabilities are required, third-parties will manufacture the products on demand and deliver them to us (or we can pick them up at the local UPS Store, for example).

Faster is not necessarily better, and it’s not always what we want or value the most, especially when it comes to delivery (given the choice between free or fast, most people choose free). But as Amazon points out, the business case and value proposition for incorporating 3D printing in fulfillment operations is also about reducing inventory and warehousing space requirements, which can significantly improve a company’s working capital.

So, unless scientists figure out how to make teleportation work, the quest for zero delivery time is a bit quixotic (considering we’re still struggling with making same-day delivery work), but that’s not what Amazon, UPS, and perhaps others are going after with 3D printing. The quest is to transform distribution networks and processes to succeed in a future new world where everyone — consumers, retailers, distributors, third-party logistics providers, and trucking companies — is a manufacturer.