3D printing: Good for retail? Tesco CIO says so

While others see 3D printing as the beginning of the end for retailers, Tesco CIO Mike McNamara sees it as an opportunity.

Mike McNamara, CIO of the British grocery retailer Tesco, says 3D printing will help his company and the retail sector at large.

In an interview with British news site V3, McNamara said retailers will soon start making use of 3D printing technology in-stores.

“I think over the next few years you will see 3D printing in shops, because for the missing hose from the vacuum printer, you can print them in the time that someone enters the store, does a bit of shopping and leaves the store,” McNamara told V3. “So I can definitely see that being part of the retail offering in the none too distant future.”

Comparing the recent rise of 3D printing to the advent of the Internet and smartphones, McNamara says retailers will identify ways to use the technology to actually drive more customers to storefronts, as opposed to making brick-and-mortar retail shops obsolete.

RELATED: 3D printing could trigger intellectual property wars, legal experts say

3D printers: Not for the average consumer

“I think it will help Tesco as a company, I don’t think it will be a bad thing,” he told V3. “It’ll be a great thing for customers, we’ll have 3D printing in our stores. As retailers you’ll always adapt.”

McNamara’s comments contradict the opinions of many experts who see the potential for consumer 3D printing as a death knell for the traditional retail store, as it will enable customers to bypass both retail stores and intellectual property by sharing design files for products and printing them at home.

At the Inside 3D Printing conference in July, legal expert John Hornick warned of the impact of at-home 3D printing on the retail business model. Using the example of toys, many of which are small, made of plastic and easy to replicate on a 3D printer, he says anyone who owns an at-home 3D scanner and printer can buy one toy at a retail store and sell hundreds of copies for profit on the black market.

“IP will be ignored, and it will be impractical or impossible to enforce if you can print things away from control,” Hornick said at the time.

To be fair, McNamara’s recent comments don’t necessarily address what retailers will do if and when 3D printers become accessible to consumers. He told V3 that he still thinks mainstream adoption of at-home 3D printers is “still a way away.”

Indeed, many others think the recent hype around consumer 3D printing does not represent its reality, which Gartner says will soon enter the “trough of disappointment” in the technology hype cycle.

In the meantime, McNamara believes retailers will make the best of the situation before it threatens them.

“Physical stores won’t disappear,” he told V3. “To see this as a fight between physical and digital is to see it all wrong. Already today 65 percent of our online orders are click and collect.”

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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