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Getting Smart with 3D Printing, WMS and Smart Ships

By William DiBenedetto, CBN Feature Editor

What do 3D printing, warehouse management systems (WMS) and smart ships have in common? Not much, you might say, but they do happen to be trending items in cargo technology circles.

Perhaps the latter two can be looked upon as continuing trends, but not 3D printing. According to Strategy& partners Andrew Tipping, Andrew Schmahl and principal Frederick Duiven, in a recent article on 2015 commercial transportation trends, "it’s time to start worrying about the next real danger to the industry: 3D printing."

Their contention is that when times are at least relatively good — meaning low fuel prices, ongoing recovery from the recession and the resulting cost-cutting and streamlining it meant for many companies — it’s wise to "shed ‘short-termitis’ and examine the real but not immediately obvious disruptions that may be on the horizon — to anticipate today rather than react later."

One of those disruptions is 3D printing. "Seen by manufacturers as a way to streamline operations, improve quality, and lower costs, 3D printing has substantial implications for both domestic and international freight businesses, particularly in reducing the importance of some transportation lanes while possibly opening up new ones," they say.

The point is that 3D printing on a large scale could revolutionize the manufacture of parts and products, along with where they are produced. Manufactured items, generally speaking, can have dozens or even hundreds of parts that are produced at different locations, delivered to a factory, and then assembled. But something made on a 3D printer, by contrast, generally has far fewer parts. Thus, as 3D printing becomes more common, many products, parts and raw materials can be made locally — reducing or eliminating the need to ship them to market.

This could mean fewer logistics/supply chain sources and steps for footwear and toys, for example, because both have relatively high shipping costs but are highly suited for 3D printing.

The Strategy& article estimates that "fully 41 percent of air cargo and 37 percent of ocean container shipments are threatened by 3D printing." Footwear, toys, ceramic products, electronics, and plastics have the highest potential for 3D printing, but perishables and pharmaceuticals are far less viable.

Could the distribution centers and warehouse management systems (WMS) of the future become massive 3D printing operations? It’s not that far-fetched.

Speaking of WMS, with or without a potential 3D printing revolution, it continues to evolve rapidly, largely because user requirements continue to demand it and because the "WMS vendor landscape has consolidated through a wave of software

company mergers," reports Clint Reiser of Logistics Viewpoints.

Mobility devices such as smartphones and tablets are increasingly being integrated into distribution and fulfillment systems. Smartphones and tablets "provide robust, mobile platforms that can often be leveraged at a lower price point than legacy warehouse mobile hardware," Reiser notes.

Customers are interested in leveraging the capabilities of tablets and smartphones "in support of operational fulfillment roles as well as for warehouse supervision and task management." Although "core" WMS functionality "is more often sufficient for customers today than it was in the past," he adds, "there are some fulfillment processes that are evolving and require WMS modifications. Most notably, the rapid growth in e-commerce has placed additional burdens on fulfillment operations. Retailers, manufacturers with direct-to-consumer operations, and 3PLs need functionality that supports the changing fulfillment requirements driven by the growth of e-commerce and omni-channel fulfillment."

The bottom line is that even with the industry consolidation, WMS continues to be a work in progress. WMS suppliers offer a robust suite of solutions, "along with a technology platform and a detailed product development roadmap," Reiser states. "WMS market competition has undoubtedly benefited the customer."

WMS may encompass 3D printing in the future but it will probably have to integrate with the rise of smart ships much sooner.

Shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries and Accenture are collaborating to design a "connected smart ship" designed to enable ship owners to better manage their fleets and achieve operational savings.

The smart ship will use a network of sensors built into new vessels, enabling ship owners to capture a wide range of voyage information including location, weather and ocean current data, as well as on-board equipment and cargo status data. All data is transmitted in real-time, including the application of analytics to new and historical fleet data, along with data visualization technology. Services are expected to include real-time alerts and warnings, predictive maintenance and more efficient scheduling.

Next: collaboration, the IOT supply chain and Big Data in ports and terminals.