Automation’s Brave New Niche

A small machine called a replicator produced items seemingly out of thin air in the science-fiction series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Today’s rapidly evolving 3D printers may be a long way from conjuring a cup of Earl Grey tea, but they can whip up the cup.

The market for 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is growing fast with the machines used to make everything from plastic models of consumer goods to end products such as dental fittings and aviation components.

“Modeling and prototyping are still the biggest application (for 3D printing), but the fastest-growing application is making parts that go into final products,” said Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates. “That’s what’s really exciting. Aerospace and medical companies in particular (are using the technology).”

3D Systems ProJet 1500, a competitor to the uPrint device from Stratasys, is a sub-$15,000 three-dimensional printer. 3D Systems and Stratasys are...

3D Systems ProJet 1500, a competitor to the uPrint device from Stratasys, is a sub-$15,000 three-dimensional printer. 3D Systems and Stratasys are… View Enlarged Image

Overall spending on 3D printers is forecast to reach $1.5 billion this year, up 15% from 2011, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Troy Jensen. He expects the market to grow 16% a year, to about $5 billion by 2020.

Wohlers Associates believes 3D printers and services will generate $3.7 billion worldwide in 2015 and pass $6.5 billion in 2019.

Shares of leading 3D printer companies Stratasys (SSYS) and 3D Systems (DDD) have been on a tear this year as investors have embraced their growth stories.

Stratasys of Eden Prairie, Minn., and 3D Systems of Rock Hill, S.C., are the top performers in IBD’s machinery-materials handling and automation industry group. The 10-stock group ranked No. 51 on Friday out of 197 industry segments.

In addition to the top 3D printing companies, the group includes makers of forklift trucks and hoists like Cascade (CASC), Columbus McKinnon (CMCO) and Nacco Industries (NC).

It also includes Perceptron (PRCP), which makes non-contact measurement and inspection systems for industrial and commercial applications. HollySys Automation Technologies (HOLI) is a provider of automation and control technologies and applications in China.

But it’s 3D printing that’s driving interest in the industry group.

1. Business

The technology for three-dimensional printing has been around since the late 1980s. What’s exciting people now are new applications, improved quality and lower-cost equipment.

“In the commercial market, the declining prices of the printers is stimulating new applications and greater usage of the machines,” said James Ricchiuti, an analyst with Needham Co.

Advances allowing the printers to use different and better materials has enabled more end-use parts, such as for dental fittings, hearing aids and medical applications, he says.

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