Will Amazon 3D printing trucks revolutionise logistics?

On 19 February, Amazon filed a patent application in respect of the equipping of trucks with 3D printers so that products can be printed on-demand, whether en route to the customer or at a customer’s doorstep. Cerys Wyn Davies, partner of Pinsent Masons LLP looks at the potential impact of this method of product delivery. 

If Amazon itself follows through with the innovation of 3D printing at the point of delivery, this could revolutionise its logistics processes, transforming the manner in which it manages stock, maintains its warehouses, as well as ships orders. This will shortcut the process between order placement and delivery, saving both the retail giant and the customer precious time.

Amazon's 3D printing truck patent diagram - image courtesy of US Patent & Trademark Office
Amazon’s 3D printing truck patent diagram – image courtesy of US Patent & Trademark Office.

Is this technology set to revolutionise logistics and supply chains in the near future?

More and more businesses including Amazon are adopting servitization models and developing their capabilities to provide services and solutions that supplement their traditional product offerings. This creates mutual value for themselves and their customers.

The value Amazon places on this new model is demonstrated by its patenting of such a new technology offering.

Amazon is seeking patent protection for the use of mobile 3D printers which enables it to print products to meet customer demand in very short time scales. However, there are many more intellectual property (IP) considerations which Amazon and others will need to consider before a 3D printing offering of a broad range of everyday products can be offered to customers.

In particular, Amazon (or its customers) will need to have the appropriate authorisations and licences in place to enable it to print products without infringement of third party IP rights. This business model presents quite a different challenge from purchasing a product and selling it on to customers.

There are a wide range of different IP rights which protect the design and other aspects of products which may be printed by 3D printing, including patents, designs, copyright and potentially trade marks.

Businesses such as Amazon will need to secure appropriate licenses of IP rights to enable them to lawfully reproduce the products required by their clients using its 3D printing trucks. This in turn will require the owners of IP rights in products to change their business model to make income from the licensing of their IP rights rather than just from the sale of their products (if they are prepared to make this change).

Furthermore, while manufacturers are enhancing their own 3D printing capabilities, there’s a clear drive towards consumers printing their own products, especially if 3D printing becomes more accessible to mainstream consumers.

If this becomes common practice, IP rights owners may be faced with the same problems as the music industry encountered with the introduction of digitisation technology, trying to monitor what every consumer is doing. Again the model will need to change, probably to a licensing model whereby consumers are charged for the right to use the design/other IP rights as opposed to the traditional product purchase.

Indeed Lego’s own 3D printing patent demonstrates Lego’s investment in the 3D printing of their toy bricks. It’s clearly anticipating and embracing this model.

New business models  must continue to provide Intellectual Property Proprietors with their fair rewards in return for the use of their IPrights, otherwise investment in innovation and design will be discouraged and stifled. The challenge is made more acute for all involved because the technology is moving very fast, often without clear sight of the legal or revenue implications.