3D printing could have many uses in retail, from producing products on demand to creating personalised items in-store.

3D Printing

Why are we talking about this now?

Awareness of 3D printing among retailers is starting to grow and many big companies are mulling how the technology can benefit them. As Tesco innovation ambassador Paul Wilkinson said in a blog on the subject: “There’s been a lot of buzz recently about 3D printing and what it can do. We’re pretty excited about 3D printing and we’ll be working hard to see how we might be able to use it to make things better for customers.”

What is 3D printing?

A 3D printer can make a three-dimensional object of almost any shape using a digital model.

It’s done using an additive process where layers of material, typically plastic, are laid down in different shapes in succession until the product is built. The technology was first developed in the 1980s but has been slow to infiltrate industries outside engineering.

Is anyone using it in retail?

Not yet, or at least not yet day-to-day. Some of the bigger retailers are trying out 3D printers in their research and development departments, experimenting to see how they could be used. But the technology is still expensive, so some questions remain about its use on a large scale - it’s a very costly method of manufacturing. The process will be useful for high-value, low-output manufacturing, especially expensive, personalised products, but won’t be a replacement for mass production of goods.

What are the potential implications for retailers?

Although many of the most exciting implications are outside retail - in medicine, for instance, prosthetics could be made - there are possible uses for 3D printing in various categories. Sex toy retailers, for instance, could potentially offer a bespoke service using the technology. At Tesco, Wilkinson said the opportunities are vast.

“We already print photos and posters in many of our larger stores, so why not other gifts and personalised items? How about letting kids design their own toys and then actually being able to get them made.”

Other possibilities include producing a digital catalogue of spare parts for particular items, which could be produced on demand. Broken items could even be taken into store, where they could be scanned in 3D, repaired digitally, and a new one made.

As Wilkinson said: “The potential for 3D technology to revolutionise the way we view stores and what we can get from them is vast.”