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April 30, 2013
This is not exactly an investing question, but I think this forum is the most appropriate place to start this discussion.
Stratasys and 3D Systems are the big boys of the 3D printer companies. And they are kicking ass with their sophisticated systems for all sorts of applications, from prototyping to industrial to dental to….everything else. The companies that use these machines cannot use the low-priced desktop printers--they just are not yet powerful enough. For example, Invisalign, who makes dental appliances (alternatives to braces), needs perfection and very high resolution. And speed, I assume. Shapeways must have the highest performance printers in their "factory" to service all their customers, as another example.
But I'm looking at the low end market now, and instead of the erector set, home-built printers of just a couple years ago, we're now seeing sub – $3,000 printers that are really offering quite sophisticated printing capabilities. They are not comparable to the big boys' higher priced systems yet, but as we all know, it won't be long until they are.
So, I'm wondering what the future might hold. Will the less-expensive printers really take a bite out of the big printers from the likes of Stratasys and 3D Systems? Or, as will also happen, will the also advancing models from the big guys offer so much more capability that there will still be a chasm between the low-priced printers and theirs?
Good question. I've been thinking about this myself.
I think the Makerbots, Solidoodles, Form 1s of the world will shortly begin to eat into the low end models from the big players, for example, in situations where a company wants to give each engineer a 3D printer. But I don't see that happening in the commercial and industrial area, which will always find economic reasons to have the most precise, fastest and versatile printers backed by a support team that responds quickly to their needs, whether it's for prototyping, specialized printing like metals or medical, or actual manufacturing line printing.
It seems like 3D printers are somewhere similar to where computers where in the late 1980's. The personal computer market started advancing quickly, but so did mainframe computers and higher end microcomputers. Even through the 90's you still saw big iron computers still rapidly selling into commercial use, all the while as PC also improved dramatically. As powerful (in those days) as PCs were, the bigger commercial systems were similarly more powerful.
I do remember in 1995, I chose to sell an IBM mainframe-related business I owned because I saw how PC's were beginning to edge in on the mainframe -- thought I was at the top of the bell curve. And it was true, as networked PCs began to supplant mainframes.
I think we've got quite a ways to go before the low-cost desktop 3D printers take share from the big systems.
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