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3D Printing is Building the Future
Weekly newsletters on the innovation economy.
In this week’s newsletter, we explore the 3D printing industry and how it’s manifested today.
The meaning of the word “printing” has evolved over centuries. The most primitive forms were shapes of stone and wood dipped in colored paints and stamped onto surfaces. Textiles were printed with spinning jennies and weaving machines. Printing presses mass produced newspapers and books. Then, typewriters offered a personal solution to printing text on paper. Following this, electronic inkjet printers became ubiquitous until laser printers were introduced. As more computers were needed, we began printing circuit boards and silicon wafers for hardware. Now, we’re stepping into another era of printing, 3D printing.
The capabilities of 3D printing are extraordinary as we are shifting into an entirely new dimension of possibilities. Up until now, everything was printed on some 2D surface. However, we are now building 3D structures by printing with raw materials like polymers, wood, and metal.
3D printing has opened up a universe of possibilities that enables individuals to invent and disrupt markets that used to only be won by large corporations. The benefit of this new era is that now humans are able to spend more time on creative thinking as they focus more on design rather than working with a third party manufacturer that may not fit their needs perfectly.
3D printers are relatively affordable and portable compared to injection molding machines. You can purchase one like MakerBot, load the printing filament, upload a 3D design, and print; it’s that easy. More advanced 3D printers have 3D scanners installed that can derive the 3D structure of a physical object placed on its tray; you can then copy or alter it using 3D softwares like Maya or Blender.
One of 3D printing’s biggest enemies is gravity. When printing delicate structures that may collapse without support, 3D printers often print tiny structures to hold up parts that are unstable during the printing process. This results in extra material wasted because the supports are thrown out afterward.
3D printing can also be slower than injection molding because items are printed layer by layer rather than molded all at once.
Comparing traditional injection molding with 3d printing shows the advantages of each method and how both will continue to exist until one is strictly better than the other.
In the chart below, it’s clear that injection molding suffers from high fixed costs but benefits from reduced variable costs as volume increases. In comparison, 3D printing has a static cost per unit that almost always costs more than the lowest price possible from injection molding. However for small batches of product, 3D printing may be cheaper than injection molding.
To make it easier to visualize the differences between these methods of fabrication, please see the chart below.
Given the numerous advantages of 3D printing, we expect that there is a large market needing this technology to improve their design iteration efficiency. According to Statista, the global 3D printing market is expected to grow up to $40.8B in 2024 based on a ~26% annual growth rate.
Today, there is a clear reason to use injection molding for certain projects while using 3D printing for others; each method tackles different problems. However, as 3D printing technology improves, speed should improve while costs decline, making 3D printing a better candidate than injection molding more often.
The scale of 3D printing is also confined to relatively small spaces, but thinking years into the future, it could be possible to print entire homes or buildings. In fact, there’s already the biggest 3D printed building in Dubai and the tallest 3D printed building in China.
Perhaps entire rockets or vehicles can be 3D printed, although this is an extremely complex task as each component involves completely different requirements. From the rubber tires connected to the axle to the aluminum chassis followed by the circuit board and engines, there’s a lot of different parts that require assembly in addition to printing. Because robots are able to assemble parts, we believe the synergy of 3D printing and robotics will automate the factories of the future.
With the advent of biological printing to create tissue of organs, perhaps printing bones and entire organs will be possible to further personalize medicine in the future. Some of these tasks are only possible in microgravity environments like space; allowing us to print enough organs to solve the shortage of organ donors.
3D Printing Stocks
Here’s a few examples of 3D printing stocks that have performed well over the past year. Returns are for the last 12 months as of 2/7/2021
3D Systems ($DDD) - 335.91%
Founded more than 30 years ago, 3D Systems is the leading additive manufacturing solutions company. This is achieved by their breed of plastic and metal 3D printers with a portfolio of manufacturing software. They partake in advanced prototyping of products across the aerospace, automotive, dental, and consumer goods industries.
Materialise ($MTLS) - 278.67%
Headquartered in Belgium, Materialise combines the largest group of software engineers with one of the largest 3D printing facilities in the world. Their goal is to empower their customers to transition to digital manufacturing. They offer solutions ranging from optimizing files for 3D printing to manufacturing unique 3D solutions for patents of orthopedic surgery.
Proto Labs ($PRLB) - 123.90%
Founded in 1999, Proto Labs automated much of the injection molding process, allowing plastic and metal parts to be produced in a fraction of the time. In 2014, they launched an industrial grade 3D printing service. In 2017, they acquired “Rapid Manufacturing”, which focuses on sheet metal fabrication services.
We are optimistic on 3D printing and believe there’s significant growth ahead to continuously automate our manufacturing processes across the world. 3D printing will also be a requirement for manufacturing on-demand components in outer space and on Mars where resources are limited. 3D printing will likely also contribute to the current “Renaissance” period of invention and innovation. The best part is that the barrier to entry of starting your own 3D printing project has never been lower.
"Plastic Injection Molding vs 3D Printing – Which is Better? - Kaysun ...." 29 Jan. 2020, https://www.kaysun.com/blog/plastic-injection-molding-vs-3d-printing. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
"• Global 3D printing industry market size | Statista." 6 Jan. 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/315386/global-market-for-3d-printers/. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
"A BFF in Space! Bioprinter Will 3D-Print Human Tissue on the Space ...." 1 Jul. 2019, https://www.space.com/3d-printing-human-tissue-in-space.html. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
"Our Story | 3D Systems." https://www.3dsystems.com/our-story. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
"About Materialise | Materialise - Innovators you can count on." https://www.materialise.com/en/about-materialise. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
"Digital Manufacturing | Prototypes & Low-Volume ... - Protolabs." https://www.protolabs.com/about-us/who-we-are/. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
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