3D Printers Bring Hi-Tech Manufacturing to Home

Cheap and easy-to-use three-dimensional printers allow parents to turn various gifts for their children in the comfort of the family living room or garage.

3D printing – a process called additive manufacturing to make objects from a digital model by laying down layers of material – isn’t new. Three-dimensional printers have been widely used in production of manufacturing and engineering prototypes for more than 25 years. Photo: John Abella/Flickr

Printer makers has drawn their attention to the consumer market, and have been rewarded with soaring sales and stock prices – as well as the prospect of lucrative buyouts, writes Reuters.

Some 3D printing models which are capable of churning out simple items such as keychains, wine bottle holders and missing board game pieces are already sold at the price of $350. Still, it’s cheaper than a high-end version of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 with Kinect.

“The consumer segment in the next few years will potentially devour everything else that we do,” said Abe Reichental, chief executive of 3D Systems Corp, the biggest listed U.S. 3D printer maker.

Shares of Rock Hill, South Carolina-based 3D Systems, currently $38, have more than doubled since the company sold its first printer for home use, the Cube 3D, in January.

According to Reichental, demand for the next-generation device is three times more than expected. However, the chief executive of 3D Systems Corp declined to provide reporters with exact numbers.

Shares of Stratasys Inc, one more major 3D printer maker, have more than doubled as well since the start of the year, to around $65 as investors sense the next big thing.

Privately held MakerBot, which released its first plug-and-play 3D printer, the Replicator, which goes on sale at $1,749 at the start of the year, even faces a problem of too much demand, CEO Bre Pettis said.

“We expected our orders to double from our previous machine, Thing-A-Matic, and instead orders quadrupled,” Pettis said.

Research firm Wohlers Associates Inc estimated that about 80,000 3D printers of all sizes have been sold in the United States since 2007.

“If someone develops a very inexpensive and safe 3D printer for children, then I could envision maybe more than half of homes having 3D printers in them, as a toy,” said Wohlers President Terry Wohlers.

Analysts suggest that the reason for the elevated share prices is speculation that traditional printer makers such as Hewlett-Packard Co and Lexmark International Inc may see 3D as “the way forward and seek to buy out a listed 3D printer maker”, said Paul Meeks of Saturna Capital.

“Somebody may come in over the top to boost the prospects of their own printing groups,” said Meeks, whose firm holds a small stake in 3D Systems.

Michael Puryear, managing director at Howard Capital Management, said fundamentals are very strong.

“And in this economic environment, a small company that’s growing top and bottom line somewhere between 50 and 60 percent should be rewarded a premium,” said Puryear, whose firm holds stakes of about 1.5 percent in both 3D Systems and Stratasys.

However, consumers like Tom Nardone of Birmingham, Michigan who bought a MakerBot Replicator for $2,000, may have a little concern of worries about stock valuations.

Nardone, who heads a marketing company, suggests these printers can be later used for making homemade toys, or as toys themselves.

“Some company will launch this device and it’ll be $199 and your kids will be begging you to buy them,” Nardone added.

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