Dr Wendy Kneissl, IDTechEx
Last year was an outstanding one for 3D printing, with share prices of the listed companies doubling or more, conferences on the subject proliferating, and media attention exploding. So what does the year ahead hold for the industry?
Whilst a new mutual fund for 3D printing was established only 2 days ago, many, indeed possibly most, investment analysts are becoming less bullish about the sector. With market capitalisations 50 or 60 times the revenues of the companies, many are now actively talking about a bubble and advising against purchase of the stock, including very publically Jim Cranmer of CNBC. It is likely therefore that shares in the these companies will fall during 2014 and only investors willing to take a short term hit for a possibly high long term gain will be trading in this area. Nonetheless, it is likely that there will be further IPO's of 3D printer manufacturers ahead.
Mergers and acquisitions will probably slow down as 3D Systems has problems enough managing its many products lines, which latter can often lead to conflict and inefficiencies within a company (a recent anonymous survey of 3D Systems employees conducted by Glassdoor noted "dissatisfaction").
Stratasys is likely however to acquire one of the increasingly popular 3D metal printing technologies, as 3D Systems recently did through acquisition of French Phenix Systems. With EOS probably out of range, a more likely target will be the likes of German Concept Laser or SLM Solutions.
One of the dangers of this consolidation which should be carefully tracked, is whether R&D investment is keeping pace with technology acquisition. With 3D Systems currently maintaining more than 3 times the number of technologies of its main competitor Stratasys, but at roughly the same level of R&D investment, funding for development is in danger of becoming thinly spread, which will have a direct impact on the pace of change in 3D printing.
With a key inkjet powder bed patent, currently held by MIT, expiring this year, we can probably expect to see a crop of new companies offering what is one of the simpler approaches to 3D printing, which will improve competition in this area - currently one of the most expensive 3D printing technology types.
Hewlett-Packard will be making a re-entry into 3D printing this year after its former dalliance with Stratasys a few years ago. The company is known to have been working on 3D printing with glass and resin, but remains coy regarding exactly what it is intending to offer. Other large corporate will certainly follow suit, although this may be a little beyond our current horizon.
And finally, what will 2014 hold for consumer 3D printing? The jury remains out on that one, but many analysts - including the author - feel that the sector is over-hyped, and certainly more investment in educating the public will need to be made if it is to become a mainstream technology. Buyers need to know why they need a 3D printer in the home - beyond printing of the ubiquitous Yoda heads.