“We printed a ukulele. Everything but the strings. It plays OK.”
James Wise of Balderton Capital says the instrument his venture firm printed for a colleague and keen musician is one of the most bizarre products he has seen created by the technology, which prints designs by using layers of materials including plastics and metals. More seriously, he adds that it is already disrupting multiple industries as rapid growth brings it out of the lab and into the homes and offices of everyday consumers.
3D Hubs, a Balderton-backed provider of 3D printer networks, was founded just this year by Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret, formerly of 3D Systems, the inventor of 3D printing which now has a market capitalisation of almost $6bn (€4.5bn). It connects printer owners with people who want to use them. The potential for the business appears huge – 3D Hubs says there are already 100,000 3D printers in operation worldwide. Its website promises that 3D printers “will empower a new breed of makers and entrepreneurs”, especially as prices continue to drop – today, 3D printers are available from retailers for just hundreds of pounds.
Henk Grootveld, head of thematic investing at Robeco, says such developments have significantly lowered the barriers to entry for manufacturers and designers. “Anybody can become a designer now,” he says.
Cheaper equipment is just one driver of the technology’s growth. In addition, 3D printing software has become more widely available and consumers have a greater understanding of the technology’s potential.
“People are recognising the power of personalising products or being able to prototypes,” says Wise.
Consumer-focused 3D printing has begun to bring bespoke products – including jewellery and homeware – to the masses and it is this new form of customisation that looks set to drive demand among individuals.
“The biggest impact will be where people demand specialised, customised products,” says Grootveld.
Website Shapeways, backed by venture firms including Index Ventures, Lux Capital and Union Square Ventures, is dedicated to customisation. In addition to enabling customers to buy 3D-printed products on its marketplace, Shapeways lets users design their own pieces, which Shapeways then prints out on their behalf. In April, the company secured $30m of series-C funding from the venture firms, led by Andreessen Horowitz.
Nonetheless, John Elliott, a senior investment professional at ING Investment Management, expects significant uptake of 3D printing in the consumer sector, particularly the use of 3D printers at home, to take a long time.
“To me this market is not even at the peak of expectations yet,” he says. “It is completely impractical and there is almost no reason you would do it. It takes some considerable talent with 3D design software to design something to actually print out.”
The big money is expected to be in sectors including industrials, aerospace and automotives – industries that can use 3D printing to significantly cut the cost of making components and carrying stock.
“As a technology it has the potential to be hugely disruptive but they are more industrial or enterprise-oriented cases where there is real money to be made – or saved, in the case of inventory,” says Elliott. “Then it starts to be a really compelling option.”
Meanwhile, the potential for 3D printing in healthcare is staggering. 3D printing is already an obvious replacement for some methods currently used for manufacturing replacement teeth, hearing aids – to which 3D printing has already been applied on a large scale – and prosthetic limbs. The ability to use digital imaging to create custom pieces for patients is a clear benefit.
But it is the prospect of 3D-printed cells and organs that is arguably the most fascinating.
In 1999 – 16 years after Charles Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems, invented the first 3D printing process – technology developed by the Wake
Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine led to the first lab-grown organ implanted in a human, according to a presentation by investment management firm T Rowe Price. In 2002, the creation of a miniature working kidney led to research at Wake Forest aiming to 3D-print organs and tissues.
“There are people toying with it in the labs,” says Elliott. “[But] there is no real application for it outside testing. [They need to] get around ethical questions related to testing.”
San Diego-based Organovo, which was launched in 2007 and listed in February last year through a $15.2m financing round, designs human tissues that it describes as “highly reproducible” because of 3D printing. In January, the company partnered with OHSU Knight Cancer Institute for cancer research and in February, Organovo partnered with ZenBio, which specialises in procuring tissues and cells, to produce 3D tissue models. It incurred $70.1m of net losses between the company’s inception and the end of June this year, according to a quarterly report. The company expects its research, development, and commercial activities to generate “substantial” operating losses and frankly admits that it doesn’t know when it might turn a profit. Today, Organovo has a market cap of about $536m: its share price has risen from $1.65 when it went public to $5.81, in October 2013.
3D Systems, which provides printers, printer parts and software, has also proven popular with investors, its share price rising from $17.64 in May 2011, when it joined NYSE, to $54.29 at the beginning of October 2013. According to the company’s most recent annual report, for the year ending December 2012, 3D Systems generated net income of $38.9m compared with $35.4m in 2011 and $19.6m in 2010.
Stratasys, which provides 3D printing equipment and materials and is often cited as one of the leaders in the field, floated on Nasdaq in 1994 with an opening share price of $5.38. In October this year its stock was trading at $101.28. It has a market cap of about $4.2bn. The company generated net income of $8.8m last year, according to its latest annual report, down from $20.6m in 2011 and $9.4m in 2010.
“[3D printing companies have] done extremely well over the past couple of years as 3D printing has sort of hit the mainstream consciousness,” says Elliott. “Part of their growth in the meantime has been funded by buying a lot of their smaller competitors, particularly 3D Systems. The underlying revenue growth of the industry right now is 20-25% per year. It is going to be a big growth market for a long time.”
Wise concurs. “People are increasingly aware of [3D printing] as a potential profitable area for businesses to operate in,” he says. “They are building businesses of significant size and traction with real revenues underneath it all.”
Grootveld says there is widespread acceptance of the technology across different industries but 3D printing is a fair way from dominating existing manufacturing methods.
“It will not replace current mass market production techniques because it is too expensive,” he says. “But just like the internet came up with new business models and services we did not need before, 3D printing will come up with new items anybody can afford.”
Wise makes the same point, but reaches further back. No-one involved in personal computers in the 70s and 80s had a real conception of how they were going to be used in 2013, he says. The uses for 3D printing in 30 years’ time are just as unfathomable. The potential for disruption of manufacturing, supply chains, logistics and design is clearly enormous, however, and the opportunity for the venturesome long-term investor similarly broad.