…though many would predict just the opposite. It’s easy to imagine how 3D printing could obliterate the need for package deliveries – that’s one of the basic selling points of 3D printers. If you want something, you print it. The United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General isn’t scared, though. To the contrary, judging by its executive summary of a new report it commissioned from economic consulting firm Christensen Associates, “If It Prints, It Ships: 3D Printing and the Postal Service,” the USPS can’t wait for 3D printing to become increasingly mainstream. Whether Americans increasingly order customized objects online that are then printed at local centers for same-day delivery, or bring 3D printers into their homes, the Postal Service seems eager to get some skin the game.
Regarding the first possible scenario, the report reads, “Christensen Associates estimated that 3D printing could raise the Postal Service’s annual package revenue by $485 million as businesses ship increasing numbers of 3D printed goods to consumers.” As for the second, “If people someday print many items directly, they may frequently need 3D printing supplies such as powders and binding materials delivered.” The report continues, “No other organization covers as much ground as frequently and reliably as the Postal Service.”
Though Amazon has threatened promised drone delivery service in “some number of years,” and Postal Service competitors like FedEx and UPS are frequently consumers’ preferred shipping carriers, as USPS points out in the summary, “The Postal Service has an unmatched last-mile delivery network.” It means last mile literally. When a delivery location is too rural to be cost-effective for FedEx, for instance, the Postal Service takes over because it “is already visiting these locations every day,” though presumably, such deliveries tend to be a money sink. The strength of its network is undeniable, though: “Six days per week, it delivers to 153 million addresses across the United States. In addition, it has more than 211,000 vehicles that drive about 1.2 billion miles annually. Moreover, it employs nearly 114,000 rural carriers and nearly 198,000 city carriers.”
The Postal Service manages to see 3D printing making that network more efficient: It “could lead to more single-item parcels being shipped to consumers over shorter distances, instead of hundreds of thousands of identical items sent by containerized cargo over vast distances. It could also lead to reduced fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, as well as less material waste due to precise manufacturing.”
The executive summary is almost nothing but optimistic, written in a kind of awkward doublespeak that combines innovation buzz words (“This assumes a medium level of 3D printing disruption”), patronizing explanations of what 3D printing is and can be used for (“Objects produced by hobbyists may be educational, artistic, or fun;” the summary also includes a rendering of two 3D scans of Abraham Lincoln’s Life Masks), and exuberance (“The Postal Service has the most to gain from 3D printing compared to other delivery firms”). It also suggets a stunning lack of self-awareness. At one point, the summary touts – as an asset that USPS could bring to the 3D printing industry – that “the Postal Service has more than 60 million square feet of excess space nationwide, much of which is in mail processing centers.” The summary then describes the ventilation and electricity capabilities of these vacant spaces, the idea being that local 3D printing centers could lease the space from the Postal Service. This point is a direct manifestation USPS’s loss of business over the years, and it reeks of government inefficiency.
The executive summary’s introduction compares 3D printing’s potential to change life as we know it to “the way the Internet revolutionized communication.” That revolution in communication, though, is a big part of why the USPS loses money every year – $5 billion in the 2013 financial year alone. That was actually a step in the right direction after the Postal Service lost $15.9 billion in 2012. Just last week, I wrote an article about the most endangered jobs of 2014, and mail carrier topped the list with a -28% hiring outlook.
Analyzing the executive summary, Brookings Institute Vice President and Director Darrell M. West and Research Analyst Joshua Bleiberg have concluded: “Even in the most optimistic scenario analysts predict that 3D printing could increase USPS revenues [only] about $1.743 billion. […] The projected annual revenue from 3D printing would only cover 35 percent of the agency’s annual net loss.”
It seems it unlikely that the Postal Service will ever be “waving from such great heights” (to borrow the triumphant lyric from the band The Postal Service). Or, at least it seems more likely that if we notice anything stirring above us, it will be Amazon drones flying overhead, whether they are delivering packages or 3D printing materials to our homes, no matter how rural.