Amazon Has a Plan to 3D-Print Straight From Its Delivery Trucks

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Source: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Drones? Food delivery? College bookstores? All of that pales in comparison to what Internet retail giant Amazon has in the works, according to a new patent filed on February 19, which details the company’s plans to not just deliver your order, but to create it right on the delivery truck.

Think about that for a second — you place an order on Amazon, one of several roving delivery trucks receives said order, fires up the 3D-printing machine in the back, and then proceeds to drop off your new waffle iron inside of a given time window. At its core, that is what Amazon hopes to accomplish one day, and is apparently serious enough about it to actually file the paperwork with the patent office.

“Techniques described herein include systems for providing items manufactured on demand to users,” reads the filing. “For example, a user can submit an order for an item offered in an electronic marketplace and request that the item be manufactured on demand by a manufacturing apparatus, e.g., a three-dimensional (3D) manufacturing apparatus.”

The key term buried in that passage is “items manufactured on demand”, which would constitute the actual production of a physical object from “a three-dimensional manufacturing apparatus” (3D printer), and bring it right to your door. Suppliers and traditional manufacturers of the products being produced (or reproduced) by Amazon’s 3D printers would be relegated to the role of simply providing instructions, and their blessing, to this new system. This makes Amazon trucks factories on wheels, churning out products from any number of suppliers that would be willing to work within the system.

The idea itself sounds pretty crazy, but it’s hard to deny that Amazon is really thinking outside the box. And the combination of the 3D printer and delivery truck is only one of a few prospective setups described in the patent filing. The major alternative being that 3D printing takes place at specified pick-up locations, where consumers can come snag their order after it rolls out of the machine.

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Now remember, this isn’t the first time Amazon has sent a seemingly crazy filing to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. After all, this is the same company that swung for the fences with its infamous patent on photographs with white backgrounds, which it actually was awarded. That sounded rather ludicrous at the time (and still does, by many standards), but this new 3D printing idea isn’t much better.

What Amazon is trying to do here is lay claim to a process — a process that anyone else can replicate — using technology that the company itself did not create. Usually, when we think of patents, we associate them with new inventions, new products, or improvements to products, even technology. But this is simply the idea of putting a printer on a truck and dropping off whatever rolls out of it at customers’ addresses. Though there are many complex parts to the overall system that Amazon is trying to trademark, it does seem a bit shaky.

For example, would a photographer with a printer equipped inside of her vehicle, dropping off photos to her clients be infringing? While that is different in that it’s not a three-dimensional object being produced, it is, in essence, the same process. A food truck conjures up similar issues, although those obviously don’t use a “three-dimensional manufacturing apparatus” as the patent filing describes.

If Amazon does turn this idea into reality down the road, the implications could be enormous. Would factories continue to churn out products, or simply sit back and let Amazon do the work while they have to just transmit instructions to a truck in Rochester? That is a real possibility, which could have some overarching macroeconomic effects as well, including labor and materials shifts. Of course, the logistics of such an operation are pretty mind-boggling. And what of Amazon’s drone program? Would that go out the window?

Amazon has yet to comment, so it’s not clear how serious of a project this could be. But if there was ever anything that gave some real credence to the “3D printing revolution,” this would probably be it.