Wall Street Wakes Up to 3D Printing, Predicts Massive Growth

An analyst sees the market tripling in the next 5 years.
3D-printed Keanu is sad now -- not even a cat will cheer him up -- but in the next five years, he's bound to find more 3D printed friends. (Alexis Madrigal)

Wall Street is starting to wake up to the potential of 3D printing. This morning Citi analyst Kenneth Wong released a bullish note projecting that the market for 3D printing and related services will triple by 2018, citing the leading companies in this area, Stratasys and 3D Systems. (Granted, such rapid growth is possible partly because the industry is still tiny, just $1.7 billion in 2011, with the market for 3D printed parts accounting for about half of that.)

Wong attributes future growth to such mouthfuls as “broader adoption across more upstream production applications and the consumer end market,” and “increased utilization of existing systems as customers start to extend use case beyond small batch digital manufacturing,” but here’s what that means in plain English.

3D printing will explode in 2014, thanks to the expiration of key patents. Soon, you won’t have to master the (challenging, time-consuming) task of learning how to model things in 3D, because you’ll just be copying them from the real world usingcheap, effective 3D scanners. This technology will also enable 3D faxing (should anybody want it) and the democratization of fine art.

The materials with which you can 3D-print something continue to multiply—the latest is plain old printer paper, not to mention human tissue. But it’s not just materials—the ways in which 3D printing, or really 3D fabrication, can be accomplished are also multiplying. There’s 3D subtraction—i.e., cutting shapes out of blocks of material—which is a lesser known but actually much more mature technology, and it’s already being used to create new models for localized manufacturing. Crane-operated 3D printers are even being used to fabricate entire buildings.

Once used mostly for prototyping, 3D printed parts are more than ever making it into finished products, including demanding applications like rocket engines.

One thing to be careful about when analyzing the potential of 3D printing is hype—especially of the “3D printing will replace conventional manufacturing” variety. While 3D printing allows “mass customization,” at this point there are lots of things that the technology isn’t good for. There are also applications of 3D printing that might never make it out of the lab, but are interesting to think about, like 3D-printed food.

One sign of maturity in the 3D printing space is that mergers and acquisitions are starting to happen, notably the acquisition by Stratasys, the leading maker of industrial 3D printers, of Makerbot, the leading producer of 3D printers for hobbyists. Companies in this space may need to get big or at least stay innovative in order to survive, since a flood of cheap 3D printers from China is on its way.

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Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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