Many of us would love to create the perfect unique gift for family and friends at Christmas, but if you’re not crafty or can’t knit a sweater to save your life, perhaps 3D printing might be the answer.

That’s what Walmart is looking to find out with a pilot program at its new Ancaster, Ontario store through December 20 with the help of Toronto-based Intersect. The company, formerly known as Bnotions, has partnered with Walmart Canada to guide customers on a personalized journey of designing and printing their own, unique holiday mementos.

“Walmart came to us,” said Amber Foucault, the VP of product management for Intersect, the innovation and custom services division of Symbility Solutions Inc.

The print-your-own $10 holiday ornaments initiative will allow the retailer to see if custom 3D products are what customers are looking for and make informed decisions for future programs. She said it’s a challenge for a big company such as Walmart to be nimble enough to set up these pilot programs. “It could be tough for them to do on their own.”

Other retailers have tried 3D printed products, said Foucault, including Macy’s in the U.S., which offered customized cellphone cases. The ornaments being offered through the Walmart pilot are a little more complicated in nature, with several stages of printing spanning eight hours, so it’s not something customers will be able to wait for in the store for same day pickup.

Intersect was able to get the program up and running within nine weeks of Walmart contacting it, said Foucault, and controls the whole process, including tapping 3DMakeable Inc., a London, Ontario-based startup building its reputation and product base, to do the actual printing.

The personalized Christmas ornaments the 3D printers will be able to produce for the Walmart pilot is beyond what anyone can do at home with the currently available technology. “There’s different degrees of what a printer can produce,” said Foucault.

At the same time, the goal of the program is to deliver a product at an affordable price point and to see if it can scale. “Walmart is going to make that investment to see if there’s a market for it,” she said. “It could be a massive business opportunity for Walmart down the road if they can do it as scale.”

The pilot program is strictly ornaments, to maintain a controlled program, since 3D Makeable has limited capabilities as a startup, and the process includes a design phase before the actual printing takes place, said Foucault. “It’s really difficult to scale 3D printing. We wanted to make sure we keep it as tight and concise as possible.”

The program will enable Walmart to better understand the constraints and parameters. Foucault said the learning process will be transferred to the retailer. “We built it specifically for Walmart.” This is standard practice for Intersect whenever it works with customers: the intellectual property is owned by the client.

She said Walmart was excited about working with a small business, even though it could have worked with a larger 3D printer in Canada or offshore. “The startup is hungry and excited.”

Furthermore, Foucault said Walmart could have done a survey, but running a real-time pilot gives it a better understanding of how customers will behave. “What people say they will do and what they do is different.”

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