Interesting interview with the CEO of Walmart, Mr McMillon at the Code Conference. He clearly sees a future for 3D printing in Walmart stores and in their supply chain. He makes light of it and perhaps that was the depth of the interview. It was not meant to be a deep or economic discussion per se.
3D Printing Threatens The Big Retailers
With all due respect and trying not to be disingenuous, what Mr McMillon does not explain is the threat 3D printing poses to his business and all major retail outlets. All those which hold inventory and run complex supply chains. Whatever may be said, the reality is that suppliers are squeezed in order to pay dividends by the mega-sized retail businesses. Go ask any farmer and they will tell you what happens as supermarket’s drive to sell more on lower margins for the suppliers. The win-win statements are rarely challenged.
The threat (the improvement) is not just consumers replacing certain items in their households using a desktop 3D printer. That could be substantial as time goes on but not yet. We may never even reach that point. There are significant limitations to the current batch of 3D printers which consumers can purchase.
Local & Distributive Manufacturing
The threat comes from another phenomena called distributive manufacturing or more appropriately in this context local manufacturing. It is on the verge of coming into focus as the price and capabilities of industrial 3D printers improve.
3D printing which supports local manufacturing is where products can be made by small manufacturing units which are closest to the point of need. It is a slow start but more such businesses are just getting started as entrepreneurs and small players recognise the potential.
If it is possible to order an item from a local supplier, just down the road as apposed to getting it from a superstore, then a large number of people will prefer to do so and act accordingly. There are several reasons why people may wish to buy in this manner. The price could well be competitive given a very short supply chain, the speed of fulfilment being local, care for the environment (less transportation) and support for kin folk in the communities in which we live (social & politics).
Aside – In a previous article about the economic and socio-political impact of 3D printing, it is clear that a lot of consumer demand is being satisfied mainly by China and India via mega-sized retail outlets. This does not sit well with an increasing section of the population.
Locally Sourced Consumer Products
Consumers are funny old things and it takes little for them to change their mind, moreover it gets expressed in their buying behaviour. There is no doubt that more people are trying or at least willing to buy products from local suppliers.
Local supply of food and clothes is a good example of a trend which is steadily increasing (coming back). Better ‘education’ has meant people increasingly care what they put into their stomachs; how it is grown and what it contains. Health authorities have done a good job on the whole but some may say with limited success. Many people also care about the working conditions under which their clothes were made (visions of children in sweatshops). A week does not go by without some scandal brought to the public’s attention.
Those lucky enough to live near market gardens or farm shops, know the benefits and act accordingly. Many also believe there are serious economic consequences of continuing to support large retailers with shareholders rather than their neighbours (community). Witness the U.S trade figures just released today which are frankly awful.
The question is when will we see the rise of local manufacturers who will use 3D printing to satisfy at atleast some of the consumer demand. Will it come quickly or will it take 10 years or more?