A year and a half ago, I was wondering if 3D printers were reaching their inkjet moment. Since then, 3D printing has been a Consumer Electronics Show standout, and 3D printing companies have seen a lot of excitement.
Hobbyist favorite desktop 3D printer maker Makerbot was snapped up by leading industrial 3D printer Stratasys (SYSS), and 3D Systems (DDD) Cube 3D printers started showing up on shelves at national retailers like Staples (SPLS). Amid the growing excitement about the potential for the industry to take off, 3D printing stocks like DDD stock, SSYS stock and Voxeljet stock (VJET) have all been in the headlines.
I’m not convinced we’re at that inkjet moment yet — despite the fact that consumer-grade 3D printers are now in mass production — but it’s becoming clear that 3D printing is moving beyond the hobbyist and specialized industrial stages to become a mainstream technology.
Commercial 3D Printing
Tech website Gizmodo has been running a series on 3D printers for the past week, highlighting stories about how the futuristic printing technology has been creeping into “normal” situations. Among the examples?
Time Warner’s (TMX) Warner Brothers Studios — in partnership with Microsoft (MSFT) — is offering up a downloadable blueprint that lets fans print a replica key from its upcoming new “Hobbit” movie using their own 3D printers.
The U.S. Army has three mobile labs in Afghanistan that are equipped with 3D printers. Eventually, these could be able to rapidly churn out everything from replacement parts to ammunition, and the Navy has plans to have 3D printers installed on ships starting in 2014.
Meanwhile, medical applications for 3D printing are exploding. One example shows that even consumer-grade MakerBot 3D printers have professional applications: Veterinarians at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine use the desktop machine to produce an exact replica of an injured dog’s vertebrae. Doing so allowed them to perfect surgical techniques before operating, significantly reducing risk. Other medical teams are using specialized 3D printers to physically replace bones and rapidly produce customized prosthetics.
Then there’s General Electric’s (GE) announcement it is turning to 3D printers (using metal, not plastic) to manufacture nozzles for jet engines. According to GE, this means the part consists of a single component instead of the 18 required using traditional manufacturing methods. The 3D printed versions will be stronger and lighter, leading the company to invest heavily in 3D printers and triple its 3D printing staff.
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), a leader in laser and inkjet printing has been conspicuously absent during all this, but CEO Meg Whitman says her company is already at work on its own 3D printers with the goal of producing a version that’s faster and cheaper than current models – with plans to unveil it by mid 2014.
Given the growing interest in the technology and the recognition that it has a multitude of applications, 3D printing stocks have been hot.
There are still some clouds on the horizon, though. Copyright has been a persistent concern on the consumer side, with fears that 3D printers (especially when combined with 3D scanners) could lead to people being able to copy products at will.
On the business side, patent lawsuits involving manufacturers have been picking up. 3D Systems was suing both Kickstarter and FormLabs over that company’s Form 1 3D printers, claiming patent infringements. In November, Stratasys sued Afinia, a company whose 3D printers are now being carried by Best Buy (BBY), claiming patent infringement. The problem, as Forbes points out, is that the technology Stratasys is suing over is also being used by a range of existing manufacturers of 3D printers, including 3D Systems. Throw in the threat of Chinese competitors — who are known for flaunting U.S. copyright law — entering the market with cheaper 3D printers, and things could get interesting.
The result is a degree of uncertainty that could take a toll on 3D printing stocks. There could be further consolidation of bigger companies like Stratasys buying up smaller competitors. There’s also the potential for licensing agreements, the possibility that an established consumer technology giant like HP enters the market in a big way, and the threat of inexpensive Chinese models appearing on shelves.
At the moment, commercial application of 3D printers seems to be taking off faster than at the consumer level (where models typically sell for more than $1,000). But overall, there is undeniable momentum growing that would indicate 3D printing stocks still have considerable upside — so long as none of those clouds derails the works.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.