3D Printers: Changing Transportation As We Know It

Principal, Transportation Solutions

President Obama’s shout out for 3D printing in his 2012 State of the Union[1] address underscores the importance of this transformational technology for the United States and the world. His remarks centered rightly on manufacturing.

On March 18, 2014, GE’s top manufacturing executive noted, “3D printing is the ultimate digital meets physical world. It’s the ultimate in using software to virtually design components then rapidly trying out new concepts and putting them into form. For all the testing we talk about, software is really the heart of 3D printing.”[2] According to a survey of 200 companies by General Electric today, “[n]nearly a quarter of advanced manufacturers use 3D printing techniques.”[3]

The structural changes from 3D printing—while rooted in manufacturing—will have significant effects on how all transportation is planned, managed, financed and undertaken in global, national, state and local communities. 3D printing is not science fiction and its impact on transportation will be immediate and long term. It requires the transportation community to act now in order to effectively plan for transportation investments; restructure asset management; reduce costs; and revamp procurement, legal and human resource policies and practices, as well as management and organization structures. The technology provides opportunities for new system designs and materials, as well as new freight transportation dynamics and logistics.

3D printing is a logical extension of technologies that gave the industry computer-aided designs and drafting (CADD), high end laser scanning, and informational tools for operational management of service activities and customer information. Each of these technologies has provided planners and decision makers with the opportunities to better manage and understand mobility for customers, as well as to be more transparent and cost effective.

What is 3D printing?

The first functional 3D printer prototype was built in 1984 by Chuck Hull. Today, 3D printing is a machine that builds up layers of material (current materials are plastics, glass, ceramics, liquids, organic materials, cement, bituminous concrete or metal powders) using a computer-aided 3D design or laser scan to create a three-dimensional product. The layering of the materials and the bonding of the layers result in a true representation of the object which is often stronger than the original.

Products can be printed at any location and the technology is such that many small parts can be manufactured at the customer’s place of business and made available faster than they can be shipped from a remote parts store. Out of date equipment or unique parts that would require costly new molding or manufacturing can be scanned and developed in less than a day.

Current printers are able to use only a small set of materials but as companies such as GE increase their use of 3D printers, the pace of developing larger printers is accelerating. Already costs have declined and small printers can now be bought for $250.

The technology and affordability on a large scale is about 5-10 years away. There are a number of scenarios for adaptation ranging from 3-5 year timeframes to much longer periods, depending on criticality and financing.

What types of products can be made with 3D printing?

3D printing products can range from novelty items to creating tools in space or fabrication of buildings using moon dust. Bioengineers are using 3D printing blood vessel networks for use in lab-grown organs created from a patient’s own cells.[4] Medical devices ranging artificial limbs to anatomical devices to assist mobility are also being developed.

In December 2013, GE and Siemens reported they will “adopt 3D printing in an effort to speed up repairs and cut manufacturing costs… and expects the emerging technology to be involved in more than half of its manufacturing in 20 years. The German electronics and engineering group (Siemens) will use 3D printing to speed up repairs and cut costs. In certain cases, the time taken to repair damage in turbine burners will be cut from 44 weeks to just four weeks”.[5] This is an amazing reduction in time.

The recent concrete slab building created by 3D printing foretells the possibilities of producing concrete highway slabs. Metal powders and particulates could print new guardrails and signs.

“Repair parts can be created by using a 3D laser scanner to create 3D CAD models that can then be modified to add reinforcement where needed to make the replacement part better than the original.”[6]

Challenge to Transportation

3D printing will offer numerous opportunities to provide new approaches and solutions to existing transportation issues, while also providing efficient ways to work and develop projects. At the same time, the technology is likely to pose many challenges to the way transportation agencies plan and conduct their business. For example, timeframes for decision-making and planning horizons will shrink. Transport patterns are likely to shift and the 20 to 30 year transportations plans could be substantially obsolete quickly. Additionally, the shifts in transportation logistics could seriously affect the need for and the financing of major port and intermodal capital projects dependent on increasing overseas supply chain goods and traffic. These circumstances will require transportation decision makers to be agile and decisive.

Some potential transportation impacts include:

Planning for Goods Movement

Logistics of the supply chain is likely the first large-scale business affected, starting with the service parts industry.[7] This will be followed by most of the manufacturing and construction distribution, reducing current manufacturing of items from afar and the distribution costs. Thus, many centralized manufacturing operations in Asia or Latin America will give way to small manufacturing hubs near the end users and/or businesses’ printing their own product needs. Corollary impacts could include:

  • Different truck traffic patterns and changes in use of the type of trucks, such as smaller vans and trucks.
  • Port traffic and long distance distribution is likely to be reduced, causing a decline in the cargo industry, as more materials for 3D printing can be produced in this country. This will challenge many port long-term strategic plans and financing for new or expanded facilities and intermodal connections to meet U.S. demand, and may alter congestion management plans.
  • As 3D printing moves closer to end users, the traditional business models of 15 to 20 year for manufacturing will give way to agile business strategies that can quickly shift location and products to serve the new demands. This means traditional transportation planning involving the relationship of employment centers to housing may not be as predictable; it will require transportation planners to be agile in how to address changes in local mobility needs.
  • Less air cargo can be expected affecting also high-value and urgent cargo levels, as parts can be manufactured when and where they are needed.

Design and Materials

  • 3D printing will provide transport decision makers with creative opportunities to design structures and facilities that were not possible or were too costly, previously. A small example is noise walls, using 3D printing noise walls designs and materials will not be limited to molds available and could be designed to reflect the community’s identity- providing for an engaging demonstration at public meetings.
  • Small bridges and bus shelters could be manufactured at or near the site and could be designed to fit into the environment while the structures retain their integrity and safety.
  • Composite wraps that not only strengthen bridge piers and reduce the need to replace bridges could be manufactured on site, reducing costs and accelerating the ability to restore bridge functionality quickly.

Management of Transportation Organizations and Planning for Change

  • Transportation planning will be affected by the new technology as new methods and tools will be available to planners through 3D applications. Public outreach and environmental conformance could be made easier as the technology allows transport officials to work more creatively with community and regulatory interests.
  • There are real cost savings potential as there will be new opportunities to improve asset management and achieve longer life cycles, freeing up capital equipment demands and also reducing costs.
  • New skills and training will be required of transportation agencies.
  • The printing of parts will reduce the need for large inventories for fleets and equipment and will improve the ability to repair and/or replace equipment quickly. Even outdated parts can be printed without the need for special orders.
  • 3D printing implies new copyright and patent laws, as well as new procurement contracts and proposals.
  • The financing of major intermodal and highway investments will become more difficult to finance as the need and revenues for the investments are likely to diminish.


3D printing is likely to be a game changer for U.S. transportation and the agencies that support it. We are at the cusp of 3D printings’ global implementation. The technology will affect all aspects of transportation be it planning and management, maintenance and operations, capital development and finance, or human resources and legal. Transportation systems will be changed, many seriously. Understanding the technology and its impact on our transportation now is critical to making near term and future business and capital decisions. 3D printing can issue in creativity and options and save dollars. It can also create havoc for those unprepared. It is our choice.

About the Author

Dr. William D. Ankner is the Principal at Transportation Solutions and the former Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development of Louisiana. Prior to his appointment he was Executive Director of the Missouri Transportation Institute and the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. Dr. Ankner also has served as Director of Finance, Management and Budget for the Delaware Department of Transportation; Director of Policy, Vapital Programming and Authorities at the New Jersey Department of Transportation; and as Supervisor of Corporate Strategic Planning and Supervisor of Transportation Police at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

[1] President Obama, State of the Union, February 12, 2013; “Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing….  Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio.  A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.  There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns.

[2] International Business Times, General Electric (GE) Talks 3D-Printing Tech: Q&A On Additive Manufacturing. March 18,2014

[3] Business, February 24,2014, Caterham drives F1 car design with 3D printing

[4] NASA took an adjustable wrench to a firm with a high tech 3D printer. The wrench is scanned, printed, and then infused with metal. The result is a completely operational wrench with movable parts, printed in one piece.

[5] Bob Morris, Technology, 3D Printing Is Disruptive Technology With Political Ramifications, August 10, 2012.

[6] NEW YORK (TheStreet) — GE is reportedly preparing to adopt 3D printing in an effort to speed up repairs and cut manufacturing costs. (December 26, 2013).

[7] “We think the service parts industry might be affected first, because at the moment there’s an enormous amount of inefficiency within that sector where huge amounts of slow moving parts are stored for many years.  We see that the engineers who are working remotely will be able to print parts from a printer stored in their vehicle, using catalogues which are digitally held, and thus taking out swathes of different tiers of inventory holding from a global level to a local level,” Editor, Transport Intelligence, The Implications of 3D Printing for the Global Logistics Industry, August 30, 2012.

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