Tesco, the U.K. grocery chain and one of the world's largest retailers, is taking the advice that businesses who experiment with 3D printing early on could gain an advantage on their competition.
The company says it's looking at ways to take advantage of the versatile technology for use in their stores. So how might Tesco use the 3D printers? Paul Wilkinson, an "innovation ambassador" at Tesco, describes his vision in a blog post:
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. What if we had a digital catalogue of spare parts for items that you’d bought? They could be printed on demand and ready for you by the time you’d finished your shopping. You could even take a broken item in to store; we could scan it in 3D, repair it digitally and make you a new one. The potential for 3D technology to revolutionise the way we view stores and what we can get from them is vast.
Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But at this point, I'm not sold on an in-store 3D printer being all that useful. The cheapest and most common "ink" for 3D printers is plastic. And it's not too often I find myself wishing I had a replacement part for a plastic item. The only aspect of Wilkinson's vision that could theoretically work at this point is the printer being used for toys. But then it would only be a novelty item relegated to the gumball machine section of the store. Not exactly the place I go for revolutionary technology. Until 3D printers are more versatile and can economically print a wide range of materials, Wilkinson's vision won't be successful.
Of course, this is all in the theoretical, experimental phase for the retailer, so there's plenty of time to test out these theories of how to best use an in-store 3D printer. "I can't make any promises [on the future of 3D printing at Tesco]," Wilkinson said. So who knows. Maybe by the time in-store 3D printers launch in Tesco stores we'll also be able to print food.