James Dennin, Kapitall: The growth of 3D printing is starting to make Wal-Mart sweat – do other major retailers have anything to fear?
It's not exactly news. The ability to customize parts, and what that could do to American inventors and manufacturers, has always been one of the most exciting prospects for 3D printers.
Read more from Kapitall: 3D Printing: Investing Idea, Consumer Good or a Work of Art?The reason why the issue is garnering new attention isn't so much that 3D printed parts have become more practical. They still require a huge amount of human labor – 3D parts need to be re-surfaced and customized by actual people – which probably means that it's still a little too early to be talking about America's manufacturing renaissance. But excitement about the industry is still pretty hard to shake off. Any 3D enthusiast worth his salt has seen this video of Leon McCarthy, the young boy who was born without fingers. His father, unable to afford an expensive factory-made prosthesis, finally discovered a way to print one. The materials cost about $10. 3D printing theoretically will allow smaller shops to sell much more customizable goods. One of the reasons that American manufacturing declined in recent decades is that it was too difficult for low volume companies – ones that only produce a limited number of goods each year – to stay profitable. Which is how retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT) came to be. Because if you essentially sell pretty much everything, everywhere, you can afford 10,000 customized parts from China. The very foundation of Wal-Mart's profit model is about consolidating the supply line. But if all you need to make your product are raw materials and a printer – well, that profit model kind of goes out the window. In an effort to stay ahead, Wal-Mart has pledged to purchase and sell an additional $50 billion in American-made products this year. Major stores probably face little danger for the time being. While 3D printing technology is is sophisticated enough to start day-dreaming, we're still a long way away from implementation. But a revival of American manufacturing… That's a nice dream to have . So how will major retailers respond to the growth of 3D printing? We've compiled a list of retail stocks that might be impacted, or if they play their cards right, could benefit from this exciting shift in manufacturing.