You know something has arrived when you Google it and find not only information, but also advertisements. The ads that now pop up when you search for “3D printing” are as good an indication as any about the growing interest in this remarkable technology.
3D printers let you fabricate solid objects via a computer-controlled device; they don’t really “print,” but instead, put down a layer of material at a time until the final object is completed. They’ve been used by industrial engineers for many years to test out a design before sending the final plans to manufacturing. Lately, the cost of 3D printing units has come down, and they’ve grown in capabilities, able to deal with different kinds of materials — plastic, glass, metal — often at the same time.
These days, you can find 3D printers all over the web, starting at less than $1,000, though high-end machines costing tens of thousands also exist. Each passing week brings a fresh report about 3D printing being used in an unexpected place.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that a Dutch architect planned to “3D print” an entire house. (To be sure, more traditional building materials like concrete would also be used.) There was an even wilder report about 3D printing being used for a haute couture dress in Paris fashion show. 3D printing is also showing up in the US military; it’s being used by in Afghanistan to make some of the parts needed for a mine detector.
Some tech enthusiasts see 3D printing forming the basis for a “new industrial revolution.” They predict manufacturing will become decentralized, with homes using low-cost but sophisticated 3D printers to make custom versions of common household goods.
But even if that sort of grand “mass artisan” vision never comes to pass, 3D printing is definitely becoming a must-have in the worlds of engineering and design, since they help speed up prototyping and thus accelerate the new product cycle.
Deloitte last year estimated that 3D devices would become crucial in a number of important markets, including the $22 billion-a-year global power tools market. While sales of 3D printers are still relatively low, below $200 million a year, Deloitte’s analysts report growth rates in excess of 100% a year.
3D printing is driving a number of different market segments, which are represented in our 3D Printing motif. There are, of course, a number of companies making the actual 3D devices themselves.
But there is also a big potential market for suppliers of the complex design software needed to create and share 3D printed objects. Many of these are branching out into 3D printing from well-established positions of strength in architectural and engineering software.
So check out 3D Printing — the motif as well as the product line. You may end up with not only a new investment idea, but also a new hobby.
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