Sounding Board: A new frontier?

Though still in it is infancy, 3D printing may present ways for brick-and-mortar stores to compete with online competitors.

Being somewhat of an oddball and lifelong science fiction nerd, I have always been Len Lewisfascinated by the replicators aboard the Star Ship Enterprise where the computer would spit out everything from a hot cup of Earl Gray tea to Saurian brandy and banana splits.

Alas, I will never see it in my lifetime—and certainly not in food so all you retailers are safe on that front—but science is taking the first tentative steps in this direction by fine-tuning 3D printing. Something which many pundits are calling the “next industrial revolution.”

By this point many of you have turned the page thinking “what the hell has this got to do with the food industry?” Bear with me here and let’s look a little further down the aisle to a technology that could eventually have a significant impact on some areas of the business. At the very least, an intriguing promotional tool to get customers in the door rather than lose them to online grocers or alternative formats.

For the uninitiated or the non-nerds among us, the 3D printing process, also called additive manufacturing, has been around since the mid-1980s. It is a process by which a computer reads a digital blueprint and uses blends of plastics called nanocomposites or powdered metals to build a product or design layer-by-layer.

The result is an amazingly detailed item that is already being extensively used by automobile designers and bio-medical companies. Australian researchers have even used it to create lightweight, customized titanium horseshoes that were half the weight of aluminum shoes, and could give racehorses a real speed advantage on the track.

So where does retail come into the picture?

In the UK, Walmart-owned ASDA has tested what has been called the “mini-me service” that enables customers to take 3D scans of anything they like—including children and pets—and then produce a 3D ceramic image. Prices started at about $65. A bit pricey, sure,

but an interesting novelty item to get people into the stores.

The cost of producing the scanned image is far more than ASDA is charging customers. But it is a great marketing tool and getting the stores tons of publicity.

In Israel, Coca-Cola promoted its mini-bottles by having people create a digital version of themselves using a mobile app that they were then supposed to take care of. It was similar to the Tamagotchi, a keychain-sized digital pet created in Japan in the mid-1990s that people were supposed to nurture through different lifecycles—baby, child, teen, adult and seniors. About 80 million of these things were sold.

Coca-Cola took things a step further by printing out mini 3D versions for selected customers as part of the promotion.

Tesco is also looking at the opportunities. Mike McNamara, Tesco’s chief information officer, believes retailers will be making greater use of this technology before long. He is convinced it will drive more customers to brick and mortar stores and he put the development of this technology on a level with the Internet and smartphones.

I have no doubt that retailers will find new, creative ways to use it as it develops. I can see 3D modeling of entire stores and shopping centers or customization of store fixtures, along with novelty items for customers.

Overall, if a store has this service, it is going to keep customers there longer.

However, as usual, someone is always around to point out the down side. In this case, some observers believe it could enable customers to bypass stores by designing and printing products at home. One example was toys, which would be easy to replicate on a 3D printer. Or, they could buy one item at a store and replicate hundreds of them for sale.

Given the cost, there is little danger of that happening any time soon. Applications for 3D are still in their infancy. But keep in mind that this technology, which cost $100,000 per unit not long ago, can now be had for less than $10,000. The day is coming when sub-$1,000 and even sub-$500 printers aimed at the consumer market will be available.

Just a fad? A novelty? An expensive toy? Maybe. But they said the same thing about the automobile, television and PCs.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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