If you happened to find yourself on London’s main shopping thoroughfare recently, you may have swung past Selfridges department store and encountered a curious JG Ballard-esq scene. Rather than the usual mannequin-dressed display, an eight-foot-high 3D-printing industrial robot has taken up residency for the month of April as part of an experimental “while-you-wait” upcycling service.
One of many strands of Selfridges’ “SUPERMARKET” concept (an ongoing initiative that challenges consumers to think about how the items they purchase are produced, and the impact of that production on the environment), the installation twins environmental waste with additive manufacturing.
Upcycling with Robots
Selfridges’ robot is using marine recovered plastic collected by environmental organization Parley for the Oceans and transforms it into designer homeware objects such as vases, stools, lampshades, and chairs for shoppers making on the spot purchases.
The 3D printer robot is the creation of ABB—a European automation company that usually supplies robots for industrial purposes—but is now making inroads in new and high-growth areas including healthcare, retail, and logistics.
|Passersby stop to watch ABB’s robot 3D printing a vase using recycled marine plastic |
at Selfridges in London (Source: ABB).
Speaking about the initiative, Marc Segura (president of ABB's robotics division) said, “While expanded choice is great for consumers, it also comes at a cost to the environment—with products and packaging often being discarded with little thought about where they end up or whether they get recycled. By reusing plastic from the world's oceans to print designer objects, we help to highlight the important contribution of robots in creating the sustainable manufacturing processes central to a circular economy.”
|Showcasing the part 3D printing has in the future of retail up close (Source: Selfridges).|
What this public demonstration highlights to me, is not only the innovative ways we can repurpose plastic pollution and turn it into useful objects, but also the wider potential of additive manufacturing and robots in helping retailers hook customers into their stores. Robots are already being used in increasing numbers in inventory, delivery management, and in-store services with research organization Coherent Market Insights estimating a 30% growth in the uptake of robots in retail by 2028.
Strengths, Weaknesses, and Swedish Meatballs
Another 3D printing retail story to catch my attention was Swedish home furnishing IKEA’s recruitment drive earlier this year. The “Taste the Future” campaign involved serving prospective employees with a plate of its iconic meatballs at their interviews. There was a twist: the meatballs were vegan and 3D printed. Why mess with a classic, you may ponder? Well, the concept neatly dovetails with two key aims for IKEA. The first is to attract a diverse range of digital professionals to fill key tech roles that are available across its European sites.
“IKEA is at the start of a journey to embrace data and technology to become more affordable, accessible, and sustainable in an omnichannel environment,” said Pascal Pauwels, Inter IKEA Group Chief Information Officer. “Naturally, people with imagination will play a big role in that quest.”
Secondly, IKEA is experimenting with new technologies to make its meatballs more sustainable as part of a wider commitment to offer 50% plant-based main meals in its locations by 2025. (However, it remains to be seen whether these particular 3D-printed meatballs will make it to your local IKEA store anytime soon.)
|IKEA’s plant-based 3D-printed version of its famous |
Swedish meatball (Source: IKEA).
By combining its much-loved Swedish meatballs with exciting 3D print technology, IKEA’s clever marketing ploy could not fail to attract the attention of digital professionals as well as the wider public. It’s exciting to see retailers harnessing the power of 3D printing to not just draw eyeballs to their campaigns, but to explore future retail opportunities and push the boundaries of what is possible to create with the technology at the point of consumption.
Right, I better get myself down to Selfridges and bag myself a vase…
For more information on 3D print, head to The Key Point Blog and The Key Point Podcast. Also, stay tuned for some exciting announcements regarding Keypoint Intelligence’s involvement in the 3D print/additive manufacturing space.