In a move
that shows the dramatic transformation of the rapid prototyping market, 3D Systems of Rock Hill,
SC, announced the acquisition of Bits
From Bytes, a producer of low-end 3-D printers.
Bits From Bytes produces open-source kits and printers ranging in price from $1,300-$3,900 based on the RepRap project that originated at the University of Bath in England.
Print materials include ABS and polylactic acid (PLA) in solid and translucent colors, polypropylene and polyethylene.
In its first full year of operations, Bits From Bytes kits and printers grabbed 17 percent of all 3-D printer unit sales worldwide, ranking second in total shipments to Stratasys, whose patent on the fused deposition modeling system of 3-D printing has expired. In a conference call discussing the acquisition, 3D Systems' CEO Abe Reichental described the Bits From Bytes technology as one of several "clones" of the FDM system. The market share estimate was made by the Wohlers Report.
A commercial version of one of the new machines was on display at Rapid 2010 at a price of just under $4,000, less than half the price of the least-expensive 3-D printer previously on the market.
Reichental says there are three markets for the low-priced printers: educational, hobbyist and small businesses.
"With the acquisition of Bits From Bytes, 3D Systems takes the next major step towards democratizing access to 3D printing - a stated strategic direction and ongoing commitment," said Reichental.
Design engineers at large companies tend to use 3-D printers with greater functionality from companies such as Stratasys, Z Corp., Objet Geometries, and even 3D Systems, which last year launched an inexpensive printer called the VFlash.
The major players have tried to leapfrog each other with lower-priced offerings. Another big change in the market is the emergence of Hewlett-Packard as the exclusive marketer of 3-D printers made by Stratasys in five Europe countries. H-P's franchise could extend globally.
"Powered by 3D Systems technology, marketplace presence and financial flexibility, Bits From Bytes products can reach new audiences, address new applications and open new channels and geographies that are begging for open source access and functionality," said Ian Adkins, managing director, Bits From Bytes Ltd.
The price of the acquisition was not disclosed. Reichental told analysts that annual sales of Bits From Bytes are well under $5 million despite its significant shipment levels.
3D Systems plans to retain the entire Bits From Bytes management team led by Adkins, and to continue operations from the current Bristol, England, facility.
3D Systems was one of the companies that developed the rapid prototyping industry in the 1980s with the invention of a technology called stereolithography, in which lasers create a three-dimensional shape from photopolymers on a moving platform. The lasers are driven by CAD files.
In the last decade, the industry has moved in two different directions. One is the trend to inexpensive printers, which operate with specialized materials as well as specific thermoplastics. The second is the move to high-end systems that produce intricate parts from plastic or metal for low-volume production requirements.
3D systems reported a first-half profit of $4.8 million on revenues of $66.8 million versus a loss in the 2009 period of $3.4 million on revenues of $48.7 million.