A Lux Research study we reported on a few months ago regarding the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) suggested that business relationships among the makers of AM machines and their users will need to change. As the larger OEMs bring these technologies inside and want greater control over processes and materials, we speculated that some with specialized requirements might try to acquire 3D printing/AM companies, and invest in them as well.
That hasn't happened yet, although we have seen industry/university R&D partnerships between aircraft-engine-maker Pratt & Whitney and the University of Connecticut to develop processes and materials, and between Optomec and the University of Pittsburgh to train next-generation engineers in AM. I still think major-manufacturer ownership of 3D printing technology or materials is coming eventually.
But some other interesting developments have happened, and more are on the horizon.
In June, Stratasys, the high-end inventor of fused deposition modeling (FDM) techniques bought MakerBot, the low-end maker of desktop machines that use FDM. A few weeks ago, 3D Systems acquired Phenix Systems, makers of equipment for direct laser sintering with metals and ceramics. Both purchases represent two ends of the industry coming together in ways that they haven't before, in terms of materials, users, or applications.
Will further consolidation happen? Probably. 3D Systems is already known for acquiring technology and markets by buying other companies, so this isn't new for the company. Stratasys has also made a few purchases in the last couple of years. Connecting the high-end metals part of the industry with the medium-to-high end of the industry that works only in plastics is a major change, as is merging the leading desktop 3D printer maker with one of the high-end 3D printer makers. I think there will be more partnerships or acquisitions, or both, as this industry continues to grow.
That's not all. Microsoft said in June that the Windows 8.1 update will have built-in support for desktop 3D printing via an SDK. The partners it mentions as helping to make this possible include 3D Systems, Autodesk, Dassault, Formlabs, MakerBot, and Stratasys, among others. 3D Systems was the first to demonstrate a printer driver for Windows 8.1, for its Cube 3D printer, at Microsoft's Build 2013 developer conference.
I think this development is huge -- much bigger than Staples offering 3D printing services or Amazon selling 3D printers and supplies -- and at least as huge as the two consolidations we just mentioned. Giving engineers the ability to use their PCs to print out objects as easily as they do word processing documents (notice I didn't say design as easily) could be a sea change bigger than when desktop computers got direct access to 2D printers. Does anyone else remember waiting in line for the old printer server?
That's probably enough to think about for one blog. Next time, I'll discuss a couple of other major shifts in progress.