It’s no secret what the advent of digital technology has done to mail volume, particularly First-Class Mail. But there’s an emerging digital technology catching hold that could be a boon to the U.S. Postal Service. It’s called 3D printing, and it’s expected to increase the number of lightweight parcels, a segment of the parcel market where the Postal Service excels.

3D printers build solid objects usually one razor-thin layer at a time using plastics, powders, metals, polymers, or other materials. Examples include one-of-a-kind jewelry, custom-fit dental implants or hearing aids, unique iPhone cases, and the like. Mostly small-size things, at least so far. But one of the big advantages of 3D printing is the ability to customize just about anything to anyone’s taste or whim, and people increasingly like custom-made products.

Retailers are already using 3D printers to make these kinds of goods, which consumers are buying and having shipped to them. The total 3D printing industry was valued at around $3 billion in 2013 but is expected to grow to $16.2 billion by 2018. And as it grows, 3D printing 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.

In our new white paper, If It Prints, It Ships: 3D Printing and the Postal Service, we explore how 3D printing could lead to an increase in packages delivered by the Postal Service representing $485 million in new annual revenue. Emerging 3D printing businesses could take advantage of the Postal Service’s unique and ubiquitous first- and last-mile network: Carriers already delivering mail every day, making the addition of lightweight parcels easy and cost-effective. And the Postal Service could partner with 3D printing businesses, perhaps using excess space in postal facilities, to help streamline the fast delivery of 3D printed goods.

Tell us what you think:

How much experience have you had with 3D printing?
In what areas do you think 3D printing will have the most impact?
How could the Postal Service adapt its business strategy to handle a rise of 3D-printed goods?

Comments (6)

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  • anon

    In case you weren't aware of this, many public libraries across the U.S. have been offering access to 3D printing for a couple of years AND providing classes and support along the way! Here in Colorado, the Pueblo City-County Library was an early adopter of this technology (, and the Pikes Peak Library District's new Library 21C in Colorado Springs has both industrial and digital makerspaces ( This movement covers the country, coast to coast, from Abingdon, MD (,0,2607372.story) to the Sacramento Public Library with its 3D printing lab (

    Jul 31, 2014
  • anon

    I've used 3D printing services both commercially and through my public library. Our public library has a "maker space" where they help the public understand how to use the technology as well as some of the ethical and legal implications. I think it's important that this service be more than just an on-demand offering but have some education built in so that people don't violate copyright, trademark, and other intellectual property laws when using the services. I think it would be great to see the USPS partner with the Institute for Museum and Library Services to support a nationwide network that supports the use of 3D printing by consumers. It is definitely going to be more common in the future and it fits with the missions of both the Postal Service and America's libraries.

    Jul 31, 2014
  • anon

    My library created a MakerSpace this year, with a 3D printer as one of the features of the room.

    Jul 31, 2014
  • anon

    Our family has two 3d printers now. We bought the first one as a kit to build yourself, one of the original 3d printers available, and recently added a second one. Our teenage sons know how to use the technology and have developed some designs, so the next generation certainly is aware of the technology (at least in the "geek" circles!). MAKE magazine and the Maker Faire events are great ways to keep abreast of 3d printing and other technologies, and there are huge followings in that community looking at all kinds of applications. It may not be mainstream yet, but it's only a matter of time.

    Jul 17, 2014
  • anon

    Well, seeing the percentage numbers here, 92% say they've never used 3D printing is an indication that this is relatively new to a lot, mostly users like me. I've heard of it, but don't have or need the use of it; but it seems it could be good for small businesses better than an at home consumer. By the description of how this is used, though, such as " custom-fit dental implants or hearing aids", I'm not sure how those uses of that type of "product" line would be good for a consumer. Even if the 3D printer can cut "razor-thin", as it says, mechanically produced products like that don't have the "human" touch to them, unless properly and feasibly monitored very closely for accuracy. I don't know how this "technology" will fit well into our "future" consumer products, but technology is technology and I suppose we just can't stop it's path. Might as well give it a chance to see how it works and how well the "products" quality comes out - hence, still the need for a "quality assurance" team, before we make any judgments yet.

    Jul 07, 2014
  • anon

    If the printers were in the post office they could save shipping materials around of items by having, the commands of the items sent to the location post office / one question ? now or 3 day shipping. Could the post office survive if it does not innovate? I would love to be working on this program. John Brennan

    Jul 07, 2014

Recent Comments

  • 10 hours 45 min ago
    Have CCA’s report at 8:00 am and deliver only parcels come back to station at 1:00 pm to get late arriving parcels. 4:30 they should have all parcels delivered on routes with close proximity....
  • 11 hours 40 min ago
    Hello Lynda, Thank you for your message. The OIG is an independent agency of the Postal Service and day-to-day mail delivery issues are outside of our jurisdiction. If you have not already done so...

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