September 2, 2022
The technology behind 3D printing has been around since the 1980s and since then has been used mostly for rapid prototyping. It didn’t save money, but it did save time. And like all useful technology, 3D printing has evolved and is now being used to make everything from complex metal airplane parts to printed prosthetics.
3D printing has also gone industrial. The industry cropping up around the technology is young, but worth a look for retail investors. Those looking to invest in 3D printing have several options – they can invest in companies that create the technology and machines that do the printing or they can invest in companies that heavily use 3D printing in their manufacturing process.
Before we get into the investing opportunities, it is important to understand how the technology has developed.
If you haven’t followed 3D printing in recent years, it might come as a surprise to see how it has changed. Most people know 3D printing from its low-quality, plastic-based past. Early versions of 3D printers used fused deposition modeling technology where a plastic filament is pushed through a heated nozzle that extrudes the plastic, layer by layer, into the shape of the model or part. FDM printers are still used for modeling, prototyping and by at-home tinkerers.
Industrial 3D printing is more commonly called additive manufacturing, named for the way the item is made. Unlike traditional or subtractive manufacturing where an item is cut from material, additive manufacturing adds layer upon layer to make the product. There are many advantages to 3D printing. It needs no tools or molds, produces less waste, allows for limitless customization, and can be used to make highly complex designs easier and faster.
Additive manufacturing has moved well beyond plastic as well. Though plastic is still a commonly used material, industrial 3D printing also uses metals, alloys, resins, and a host of other materials.
3D printing is also moving into new sectors. In the medical field, for example, 3D printing is being used to create tissues and organoids, for surgical tools, custom prosthetics and even to “print” bones. Forecasts show that 3D printing in the medical field will be worth $3.5 billion by 2025, compared to $713.3 million in 2016. ICON, a company in Austin, Texas, is building homes using a 3D printed concrete technology. ICON is also working with NASA on 3D printed structures for long-duration human missions to the Moon and Mars.
The overall additive manufacturing sector is still in its infancy when it comes to retail investing. Only a handful of publicly traded companies that work in additive manufacturing are available to individual investors. They include:
Stratasys Ltd (Tii:SSYS) makes 3D printers, polymer materials, its own software ecosystem, and related parts and serves industries such as automotive, aerospace, consumer products, and healthcare. The company recently announced that it had partnered with NASCAR to produce the first 3D-printed components to be used in all NASCAR Next Gen race cars, which begin competing this year. The company was also named the official 3D printing partner for Toyota Racing Development.
3D Systems Corp. (Tii:DDD) has been in 3D printing for more than 35 years. The company offers hardware, software, materials, and services, to the 3D printing market. 3D Systems works on advanced applications in healthcare and industrial markets such as medical and dental, aerospace and defense, automotive, and durable goods.
Proto Labs Inc. (Tii:PRLB) is an e-commerce company that offers 3D printing, injection molding, CNC machining, and sheet metal fabrication to product developers, engineers, and supply chain teams around the world.
Desktop Metal Inc. (Tii:DM) has an expansive portfolio of 3D printing solutions, from rapid prototyping to mass production. Founded in 2015 by leaders in advanced manufacturing, metallurgy, and robotics, the company is addressing the challenges of speed, cost, and quality to make additive manufacturing an essential tool for engineers and manufacturers around the world.
Nano Dimension (Tii:NNDM) is a supplier of Additively Manufactured Electronics (AME) and multi-dimensional metal and ceramic additive manufacturing 3D printers.
Xometry (Tii:XMTR ) is a marketplace for on-demand manufacturing of prototyping and mass production. It has a network of more than 5,000 suppliers that companies can call on to meet their fabrication needs. Among the suppliers on the Xometry platform are 3D printing companies, injection molding, and automated machining. The company reported having more than 28,000 active buyers utilizing its platform at the end of 2021.
Those interested in spreading their investment in the industry might consider The 3D Printing ETF (Tii:PRNT).
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When individual investors think of manufacturing, few think of high tech, but advances in 3D printing, especially industrial 3D printing or additive manufacturing, have opened a new frontier. Additive manufacturing is reducing the cost of production and localizing where products can be made. It is still early days when it comes to industrial 3D printing, but it is a growing sector that is worth watching for retail investors.
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