The Three Play In 3-D Printing

By Aaron Levitt | December 06, 2012 AAA

The best advances in technology are the ones that disrupt societies and change industries. Ideas like cloud computing, the Internet and even tablet PCs have changed the modern tech landscape. Investors in funds which track these ideas, like the First Trust ISE Cloud Computing Index (Nasdaq:SKYY), stand to profit handsomely over the next few years, as these ideas take off. One new game changer technology is still in its beginning stages. Three-dimensional printing could be one of the biggest portfolio opportunities out there. The technology is quickly advancing and stands to make early investors quite a bit of money as the concept grows.

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Fourteen Percent Growth
While it may seem like science fiction, the idea of printing a 3-D model of an object from your home computer is quickly becoming science fact through innovation. These machines use a process where they "print" a three-dimensional object by depositing layers of material, usually ABS plastic, on top of each other.

Much like when computers made the leap from universities and government laboratories to homes, 3-D printers are on the verge of becoming affordable for everyone and are about to change the technology and consumer sectors. Improvements to the printers have brought down costs considerably. Three-dimensional printing machines used to cost millions of dollars and were once only available to large manufacturing companies, but now can cost as little as $1,000. That lower price point could finally begin making the devices seriously affordable for smaller businesses and individual households alike.

Those lower prices for the technology seem to be spurring demand. Already, 3-D printing has made inroads into manufacturing areas such as tools, small appliances and auto repair, as producers no longer have to create thousands of a product to recover fixed costs. Data from consultancy group IBIS shows that over the last 10 years (2002 to 2012) 3-D printing has grown by 8.8% annually. However, that growth will continue, as the costs for the machines dwindle. IBIS estimates that the projected average annual growth rate for 3-D printing devices through 2017 will be an impressive 14%.

So far, much of the demand for 3-D printing has come from the industrial world. However, that is changing too. Office supply and copy center store, Staples (Nasdaq:SPLS) recently announced that it will start allowing customers to begin 3-D printing using Mcor Technologies paper style 3-D printing. The move serves to legitimize three-dimensional printing for the masses.

Printing a Portfolio
Given that the growth in 3-D printing is just beginning, investors may want to give the sector a go. Surprisingly, the biggest firms in traditional document printing - like HP (NYSE:HPQ) or Xerox (NYSE:XRX) - have zero exposure to the industry. For portfolios wanting to get in on the action, investors need to focus on some unfamiliar names.

Fresh off its new merger with Israeli company Objet, Stratasys (SSYS) is now the largest 3-D printing firm with printers able to use 120 different materials. Another bonus for shareholders is that the newly merged company will keep its main office in Israel. That will save roughly $4 million in tax savings, which is pretty considerable, given that this is a small-cap company. The merger follows a very good quarter for the company, in which it reported record revenue. For investors, Stratasys makes a compelling buy in 3-D printing sector.

Cute ticker aside, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) is no slouch, either. The company collaborated with software firm Autodesk (Nasdaq:ADSK) last year in order to help drive down prices and make 3-D printing available to the general public. That included creating kits and printers that only cost $1,300. That lower price could help drive 3D Systems printers into more homes and small businesses. At the same time, the company producers a large share of revenue from print services, which is essentially leasing out 3-D printers to create prototypes and models on-demand.

Neither firm is particularly cheap on a metric basis, but could provide some much need momentum to a lagging tech portfolio.

The Bottom Line
What used to be science fiction is quickly becoming science fact. In 10 or 15 years, we will all have a 3-D printer in our house. For early investors, the revolution could bring big profits to a portfolio. Both Stratasys and 3D Systems along with smaller rival Proto Labs (NYSE:PRLB) make ideal picks to play the growth.

At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own any shares in any company mentioned in this article.

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