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How hot is 3-D printing? Hot enough to get Wal-Mart's attention.

June 2, 2014

You know you’ve reached a level of public acceptance of new technology when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gets involved.

Last week, the new CEO of Wal-Mart, Doug McMillon, sat down for a Q&A at the re/code conference in Los Angeles and talked about ways technology is impacting traditional retailers. And what technology interests him most?

“3-D printing is interesting. We’ve had some tests in this country and a few others of bringing 3-D printers into the store and letting [customers] make a “mini-me” statue, and we can’t keep them in stock.”

The Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart — the world’s biggest retailer — also sells Cube home systems made by 3D Systems of Rock Hill, S.C. on its website. (Asking price: $1,200.)

But it’s not just a question of a few trial events or online sales to a few tech heads. McMillon said he sees a wider impact from 3-D printers.

“I think there’s supply chain consequences,” he said. “I think there are consumer consequences in that.”

But in two different stories in the Wall Street Journal that ran June 1, insiders noted that while there is interest, 3-D printing is a long way from mainstream yet.

“[There] are 3-D printed products that are just starting to cross into more of a mass market. But I don't think there's been any breakout 3-D printed product yet,” said Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk Inc., which just announced plans to roll out its first 3-D printer.

And 3-D printing is not the perfect answer for every product, as the Journal noted in a separate story.

The makers of Mimo — an infant’s onesie with a built-in monitor to track a baby’s breathing — started off producing its parts through additive manufacturing, but when it got a big order, it switched to injection molding, co-founder Thomas Lipoma told the Journal.

“We did the entire concept through testing in about a month,” but when production ramped up from 200 pieces a week to a planned 50,000 a month, “that's a lot to do for a MakerBot.”

Wal-Mart's British store Asda promoted the use of scanning to be 3-D printed "mini-me" models last year.