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3-D Printing Finds a Custom Foothold in Manufacturing

3-D printed wrench

A part of 3-D printing's appeal is its ability to create tools and parts as needed, in remote locations. Aboard the International Space Station in 2014, NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore displays a ratchet wrench created from a 3-D printer a long way from Earth. CREDIT: NASA

Since May 2015, in a portion of its WorldPort distribution center in Louisville, Kentucky, United Parcel Service has been operating a spare parts warehouse with no spare parts. Instead, the facility is stocked with ultrafast 3-D printers that can build up almost any plastic part that’s required, layer by layer by layer — and have it ready for UPS to deliver anywhere in the United States by morning.

“It was a no-brainer,” says Alan Amling, UPS’s vice president for corporate strategy. Storing spare parts for quick delivery was already a big moneymaker for the company, he says. UPS operates more than a thousand field stocking locations worldwide — all full of items that somebody might need someday, maybe. The industrial customers who pay for that service have to keep the parts available because of warranty contracts, says Amling. But they hate it. “Inventory storage costs are massive,” he says. “So we started to see 3-D printing as a solution.”

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Released May 4, 2018, Updated May 7, 2018