Credit: Courtesy of Walmart Corporate

With a large information technology infrastructure and the planet’s most effective supply chain strategy, Walmart can offer most anything at "everyday low prices." Now, with 3D-printing technology advancing, the Walmart supply chain strategy may see some changes.

With 11,000 stores worldwide, Walmart is the world’s largest retailer. The corporation generated $470 billion in revenue last year alone. Walmart certainly has the capital—and the technology—to develop a supply chain based on 3D printing. Specialty retailers could offer 3D printing for products in their niche markets, but Walmart could sell all of those products and at a reduced cost.

Walmart also currently has the largest information technology infrastructure of any private company in the world, using its data to force cost out of the supply chain. The data allows Walmart to forecast consumer demand, manage inventory levels, and improve customer relationships.

One test currently underway demonstrates one of the great benefits of 3D printing: manufacturing instantaneously as close as possible to the place of demand. In the York store of Walmart’s UK affiliate, Asda, the retailer is testing new digital scanning and printing services. Customers themselves have the opportunity to be scanned, transformed into a digital model, and converted into an 8-inch ceramic figurine in about two minutes.

Although Walmart has the real-estate benefit—some 90 percent of people in the U.S. live within 15 minutes of a Walmart—the corporation has been expanding to other platforms to make its products even more convenient for customers to purchase. As the trend of online browsing and shopping has shifted from PCs to smartphones and tablets, Walmart has invested in its mobile presence by building apps, delivering mobile coupons, advertising the mobile platform, and including interactive features in their marketing. Walmart is already driving up to 40 percent of its online traffic from mobile devices.

Incorporating digital manufacturing into its mobile presence with could help Walmart battle with online retail powerhouses such as Amazon. Amazon has subjected Walmart to the downfalls of “showrooming”—where a consumer inspects a product in-store but purchases the item online. In a recent survey, 64 percent of consumers polled said they had “showroomed” Walmart, yet purchased at Amazon. If production could happen quickly enough, it’s conceivable that consumers would view those products from their mobile devices and make the purchase in-store—reversing the concept of “showrooming.”

Digital 3D printing can reduce the upfront cost typically required with mass manufacturing and eliminate packaging, logistics, and inventory. The list of printable products that can be digitally manufactured increases daily, but there is no indication that 3D printing will eliminate mass manufacturing in the near future. There will, however, be more options for consumers: purchase online for manufacture in-store, or manufacture online and ship your product. Many products will continue to be mass-manufactured, although 3D printing will begin to factor into their production.

By 2020, 3D printing and 3D imaging, including software, design, and scanning, may be an $8.41 billion business, according to a market research report by MarketsandMarkets. Digital manufacturing may one day drive the retail supply chain—and Walmart plans to dominate that digital market, too.