From Inside 3D Printing Conference:
Where to Invest in 3D Printing?

On the very day that Shapeways announced its latest round of $30 million in funding, an afternoon panel discussion at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York tackled the practical business questions of 3D Printing.

In the opening overview presentation before the panel, Jack Schildhorn, Vice President and Director of Operations at LUX Capital, brought the conference back from far-out fashion and Star Trek Replicator dreams to state, “Cool technology alone does not make a business”. Other industries have had to navigate the opportunities and accompanying challenges of emerging breakthrough technologies and 3D Printing is now at that crossroads.

Here are some key trends that were mentioned:

Growth Drivers

The hot market for personal 3D Printers is getting most of the media hype since industrial applications tend to be boring to the masses. Stories about reduced weight in airplanes due to 3D Printed seat fixtures are not nearly as likely to “sell papers” as the latest gun or robotic hand application. But the panel seemed to concur that production applications are driving industry growth. 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental had already stated that medical applications were the top reasons for the industry leader’s growth. Many of these were medical device applications such as the Invisalign customized dental brace product which use production machines from 3D Systems.

Production Needs

3D Printing is ideal when a customized one-off part is needed. But when volume increases, production costs using 3D Printing are prohibitive and companies must fall back upon traditional manufacturing. Shapeways Co-founder and CEO Peter Weijmarshausen had earlier described the problems with current batch processing. If something goes awry, the entire batch is ruined. To scale up, 3D Printing needs to provide continuous manufacturing processes.


A hot topic throughout the conference centered on materials. Not only is there expanding need for 3D printing additional materials, characterization and certification of existing material properties is required for any applications with safety implications, including medical, aerospace and automotive.

In addition, current materials often require time-intensive and expensive pre- and post-processing. For example, producing silver parts is expensive as extensive manual processing is required post-production.

Machine Prices

3D printer patent expirations opened the way for small start-ups to develop home units. Many of the machines – and the companies that produce them – did not exist 5 years ago. The market entry cost was lowered from $50,000 to less than $1,000. Of course, these machines are not the answer for all aspects of the industry but they have opened new markets and increased media attention.

New Business Models

Perhaps the most conspicuously successful business in 3D Printing is Shapeways. The Dutch innovator created an entirely new business model that incorporates 3D printing services with a marketplace encouraging growth of designers. Distributed manufacturing – centers locally based – is on the horizon in Shapeways business plan, and the New York facility is just one expansion to bring production closer to the consumer.


So what does this all mean for investors?

Well, if you’re looking for business investments with strong growth and higher than average returns, these professionals recommend looking into:

  • Companies with Industrial Applications of 3D Printing
  • Inventors creating new materials and new ways to produce standard materials
  • New business models

While cool new applications like 3D printed chocolate or high-profile personal 3D printers may capture the imagination, the panel essentially suggested investing in areas where sustainability is more likely. Though perhaps less newsworthy, these firms will lead to higher stockholder value and growing returns.

  • 3DPrintInvestor

    Interesting take on the 3D Printer market. I believe however that the consumer market in the 3D sector will be at least as much of a growth driver for the sector as the industrial and medical applications. I see 3D Printers as being as ubiquitous as cell phones and microwave ovens in homes a decade from now, and that’s a huge market to tap.

    • Sarah Boisvert

      Well, in their current state most personal 3D Printers are not designed for the mainstream market, but rather for makers, hackers and enthusiasts. It’s going to be awhile before software and hardware are user-friendly enough to be in everyone’s home.

      I also heard a good observation by Terry Wohlers at the same 3D Printing conference refereced above. Before computers, just about everyone was already doing the tasks that computers converted to digital formats. We were already writing both personal and business letters, using ledgers for accounting and we all had “diaries” for keeping our schedules. But not everyone is designing now. So to say that suddenly a population that has never designed anything in analog is going to design because 3D PRinting is cool, is a bit of a stretch.

      Personally, I have no talent in the design area. My mother owned a fantastic sewing machine, and tried ot teach me. But I have no interest. Michael Kors or Armani are far more talented than I am! I also have lots of friends with designer kitchens who don’t cook. To 3D Print, there must be a desire to do so.

      Also, 3D Printing – unlike what you read in the media – CANNOT do 100% of all manufacturing tasks. Friends were shocked when a colleague just sent a design of some earrings he had 3D Printed with ABS to have it duplicated in Stainless Steel and Shapeways said they couldn’t do it.

      3D Printing is a fantastic tool that expands manufacturing but it isn’t the Star Trek Replicator yet, and I’m not sure it ever will be.
      BTW if you go back to some of my earlier FabLab posts, you can get more detail. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out!


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