Online grocer Ocado has revealed that it is actively working on both "food and non-food" 3D printing projects as it looks to establish itself as ahead of the retail technology curve.
Speaking to V3, Ocado's technology director Paul Clarke said his firm saw significant potential in 3D printing for the grocery business and custom foods. "The commercialisation is very interesting for us," he said. "The ability for us to use 3D printing when it comes to food, to be able to deliver that sort of personalisation is of interest to us. We're uniquely equipped to be able to do it in a way that many retailers wouldn't be."
Citing examples such as customised icing on cakes, pasta and pizza, Clarke said there are multiple "stealth" skunkwork projects going on within Ocado to see exactly how a business case could be made for 3D printing.
3D printing has become an umbrella term for automated, smaller scale production of products in specific shapes - pizza, for example, has been "3D printed" for NASA with each of the ingredients - cheese and tomato sauce - piped from containers mounted above the "printing surface" (see video).
"You have to think about how you'd produce this at scale," Clarke explained, adding that he believes Ocado would have to produce its own bespoke 3D printing units to do so. "It's one thing to prove you can do it, but you'd also have to think about how to do it on a scaled-up basis and still have it be economic. It's those engineering issues that are relevant to us."
Ocado also runs a non-food business, and Clarke maintains that 3D printing could play just as big a role there as in the grocery business with items such as tabletop decorations and spare parts for other products seemingly economically viable. "We think 3D printing will have an impact on how non-food goods are produced for customers. It's definitely an area to watch," he said.
Several examples of 3D-printed food have already garnered widespread attention, including pizza, burgers, pasta and chocolate, the latter two of which could be customised to create patterns or personal messages at a buyer's request.
Several other retailers have said they also see potential in small 3D printing operations, which bring the capabilities of large manufacturers into stores. McDonald's IT director, for example, admitted he had been thinking about 3D printers as a means of printing Happy Meal toys in stores. Tesco also told V3 in September that it sees 3D printing as an interesting area of expansion.
With major companies all seriously considering 3D printing as a means of production, the concept has gained significant credibility, moving from a buzzword to a genuine business-altering product.
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