Okay, so it seems that whenever a new 3D printing company goes public, or lowers the price of one of its products, or does just about anything, it’s touted as the pivotal moment that will put a 3D printer in every home office.
But this might really be it.
A big problem with 3D printing is that there’s a steep learning curve to make computer models of the objects you want to print. Quartz recently reported that Makerbot — the leading company catering to 3D printing hobbyists — now offers a handheld 3D scanner that allows noobs to scan any small item and upload the file to a 3D printer. No coding necessary. And Signe Brewster of GigaOM anticipates it will cost around $500.
Makerbot is on a roll this summer. It just merged with Stratasys (SSYS), a leader in industrial 3D printing, in a move that allows the company to produce its consumer 3D printers and scanners on a larger scale. And it has partnered with Microsoft (MSFT) retail stores to distribute its products, bringing affordable 3D scanners and printers to the average consumer.
As many before me have noted, including InvestorPlace’s Brad Moon, the increased ease of access to 3D printing brings us one step closer to an age where physical items can be pirated just as easily as songs or video.
Although Makerbot’s Thingiverse website offers a free open source library of 3D blueprints, as of now there is no equivalent of the Apple (AAPL) iTunes Store to purchase the rights to blueprints for replacement parts or whole items. So Stratasys and Makerbot are strictly making money off hardware — but the opportunity to sell blueprint license rights seems like an obvious next step. Once it becomes easy for the average consumer to scan and replicate items, won’t the companies that make those items want some share of the secondary market?
For example, General Electric (GE) has a presence on Thingiverse, but notably, GE’s page has no replacement part blueprints for household products it manufactures. That hasn’t stopped hobbyists from creating what they need, from stove knobs to shower filter reinforcers. Not providing blueprints for its products seems like a wasted opportunity for GE to be first in the space — one would imagine it could help set a precedent for the fee structure, plus would give General Electric a fair amount of publicity.
We’re very much still in the Wild West stage of 3D printing, but Makerbot’s in a great position. It already has the big guns of Stratasys behind it — so if Makerbot can figure out how to skirt the legal mistakes of Napster, and deliver as visually sleek of a product as smaller companies, it and SSYS could be well on the way to creating an Apple-like ecosystem of 3D printing products.
As of this writing, Carla Lake did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.