如果说曾有人怀疑华尔街正热衷于炒作3D打印概念，那上周随着花旗集团（Citi）分析师肯尼思•王开始关注3D打印机生产商Stratasys公司和3D Systems公司，这种怀疑自然就烟消云散了。在一份客户报告中，肯尼思同时还表示，他深信3D打印设备及服务市场到2018年规模将增长到现在的三倍。他写道，这个市场“正蓄势待发，将有更多上游生产应用及终端消费市场大规模采用3D技术”。话音刚落，Stratasys和3-D Systems——以及该领域的其他厂商——的股票就应声飞涨。
If there was any doubt Wall Street is warming up to 3-D printing it was extinguished last week when Citi analyst Kenneth Wong initiated coverage of 3-D printer manufacturers Stratasys (SSYS) and 3D Systems (DDD), at the same time expressing in a client note that he believes the market for 3-D printing equipment and services will triple by 2018. The market "is on the cusp of seeing much broader adoption across more upstream production applications and the consumer end market," Wong wrote. Shares of Stratasys and 3-D Systems -- as well as others in the space -- spiked.
"Increased utilization of existing systems as customers start to extend use case beyond small batch digital manufacturing" is behind this growth, Wong says. Or, more plainly, 3-D printers are becoming less expensive, easier to use, and applicable to more -- and more complex -- kinds of objects and designs. Factor in a confluence of other catalysts, like the expiration of key patents that currently discourage competition in the space, and 3-D printing is poised to explode in the next few years.
Wong isn't the first analyst to make this observation, though for whatever reason his decidedly bullish client note found traction in the popular press, helping to buoy 3-D printing stocks for an afternoon. But has 3-D printing really reached its tipping point? To hear the hype machine tell it, the world is hurtling headlong into a 3-D printing revolution. But while cheaper printers, expiring patents, and a wider range of applications will certainly help drive the market -- and perhaps even triple the value of 3-D printing's nascent marketplace in the near term -- a desktop manufacturing revolution this is not. Here are five reasons why.
1. Patents will expire, but they're not what's holding 3-D printing back
The patents set to expire in 2014 concern laser sintering, one of the oldest and lowest-cost 3-D printing technologies on the market. Laser sintering can produce high-resolution objects, good enough to be finished products in some cases. But though the cost of printing is low, the cost of the actual printers is quite high -- in the tens of thousands of dollars for industrial grade machines. A lack of competition caused by intellectual property protections keeps that price high, the theory goes, and when those patents expire next year the price of these machines will drop, increasing access to laser sintering technology and lowering the overall cost of manufacturing by 3-D printer.
However, the idea that expiring patents will fuel an explosion in 3-D printing suffers from a key flaw: Patents aren't really what's holding the 3-D printing market back.
"The reason 3-D printing isn't bigger than it is today is largely not because of intellectual property issues or who owns what patents," says Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media, and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada. "It's the fact that for most of the things that we need in the world today, 3-D printers are too slow, too expensive, or that -- because of the limitations in the kinds of materials they can use -- they cannot easily make the things that you want to. The single biggest factor keeping 3-D printing smaller than it might otherwise be up until now has been the utility of 3-D printers, not the patents."
The expiration of patents addresses one of those issues -- expense -- but it won't solve the more fundamental problem of functionality, Stewart says. "When the patents come off, that will help, but it doesn't suddenly transform the market."