Investing in 3D Printing Companies and Stocks
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Around the time everyone was wringing their hands about the upcoming Y2K non-event, Hewlett-Packard was “going back to the garage” trying to get back to being an innovator. It was the late 1990s, and internal rumors were spreading that the Hewlett-Packard R&D lab in Boise Idaho was producing 3D printed chess pieces. It was probably the first time anyone had ever heard of printing objects in 3D, and it all sounded quite promising.
What everyone imagined was a future where every household contained a 3D printer which produced objects on demand. Who needs to go to the store when you can just print things at home instead? Unfortunately, this never panned out, and the only people with 3D printers in their homes were nerds and hobbyists. So much for investing in companies that produced consumer 3D printers. However, on the commercial side a different story was unfolding. In order to make sure we’re all on the same page, here’s a quick primer on what 3D printing is.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is the construction of three-dimensional objects from Computer-Aided Design (CAD) models or other digital 3D design models. The process involves laying down and bonding successive layers of base material to form a 3D structure. Because it’s additive in nature, this kind of manufacturing process results in less waste than subtractive manufacturing (like carving out something from a larger block of wood, plastic, or metal). Another key advantage of 3D printing is that it can create complex shapes that traditional manufacturing cannot, including hollow parts or parts with internal truss support structures to reduce weight.
The process starts with a 3D model created from scratch (using 3D CAD software or a 3D scanner), or downloaded from a repository. When the model is ready, it needs to be prepared for printing – this is called slicing. 3D printing software creates many successive layers from the digital model and sends it to the printer, which in turn prints the object layer by layer, binding each layer to the next one.
Early 3D printers were capable of rapid prototyping and one-off manufacturing and used certain types of plastics called polymers bound by heat. Today, there is a large variety of materials to choose from, and 3D printers can print large-scale rocket parts as well as invisible objects at the micro level and even nano level.
3D Printing Materials and Technology
3D printers use various types of raw materials for additive manufacturing: plastics, metals, ceramics, concrete, paper, and even certain kinds of foodstuffs. Raw material gets fed to 3D printers in a variety of different forms such as filaments, powders, and pellets. Construction processes vary with the material used and scale, and fall under the following larger categories:
- Creating layers of light-sensitive liquid materials that harden on contact with lasers
- Creating layers of heat-sensitive powders that fuse upon contact with high-powered lasers
- Creating layers by mixing base material powder and a binder agent
- Fusing sheets and cutting them to the final form later
- Spraying metal powder or wire through an energy source in a nozzle that melts it instantly which then also hardens instantly after application
The most common technique with plastics is called stereolithography (SLA). It uses a targeted ultraviolet laser pointed at a vat of liquid photopolymer resin. The laser beam traces a single layer which hardens, then the vat descends by a distance equal to a layer and the laser repeats the process. When the object is finished, supporting structures that attach the object to the elevator platform need to be removed.
Material jetting is the inverse of this process where small nozzles spray the shape of each layer and ultraviolet light makes the resin hard before moving on the layer above – much like a standard inkjet printer with an added third dimension.
Another approach, also used with 3D printing metals, is called powder bed fusion. Here metal, plastic, ceramic, or glass powder is fused together by a high-powered laser. The laser selectively targets the areas in a sheet of powder where the construction layer needs to be and fuses it to shape.
Speaking of 3D metals, this is where the promise of 3D printing seems to be gravitating towards.
3D Printing Metals
There are many ways to go about 3D printing metals, each method having its own advantages and disadvantages. There are quite a few startups now that are only focused on 3D printing metals. In fact, there are more than 50 different companies working on how to 3D print metals. Startups like Digital Alloys are now developing a metal 3D printer that can print metals extremely fast and at a low cost without the need for lots of post-processing (added steps make 3D printing metals more expensive). A publicly traded company named Velo3D is now supplying 3D printers to SpaceX, which one would expect are being used for aerospace applications. (Check out our piece on how The World’s Largest Metal 3D Printer is Printing Rockets.) The leader in metal 3D printing right now is probably Desktop Metal after they made 10 acquisitions in 2021 including key competitor ExOne. For a comparison of all pure-play metal 3D printing stocks, check out our piece on Metal 3D Printing Stocks: DM vs VLD vs MKFG.
The Industrial 3D Printer
As the 3D printing sector becomes more mature over time, a number of focus areas have emerged in various industries which show promise for institutional investors and retail investors alike.
3D Printing and Dentistry
Remember having to go to the dentist to get dentures? Not any more. More and more people are opting to straighten their teeth at home using services provided by companies like Align and SmileDirectClub.
3D Printing Medical Devices
The FDA breaks down commercially available 3D printed medical devices into the following categories:
- Instrumentation (e.g., guides to assist with proper surgical placement of a device)
- Implants (e.g., cranial plates or hip joints)
- External prostheses (e.g., hands)
Patient-matched devices are created from an individual patient’s imaging data, which means that companies need scanning capabilities along with printing capabilities. 3D Centinel 3D prints spinal implants. An Irish startup called Axial3D creates anatomically correct models for surgeons to examine prior to surgeries using 3D imagery.
3D printing can also be used for drug delivery, where a pill might be “printed” to exact specifications with just the right amount of active ingredients. A company called Aprecia Pharmaceuticals is the global leader in 3DP pharmaceutical manufacturing and the world’s first and only FDA-validated, commercial-scale technology for 3D printing.
One popular topic around the time of 3D printing hype was the notion of 3D bioprinting where everyone imagined a world where we could just print organs on demand. That’s the ultimate goal, but in the meantime, human tissues could be printed for other use cases like drug testing. Back in 2013, a company called EnvisionTEC was offering a 3D bioprinter for under $200,000. Three years later, a company called BioBots wanted to do it for under $10,000. Turns out the price of the printer wasn’t really that important. What was important was commercializing 3D bioprinting at scale for any use case. Today, there are hundreds of 3D bioprinting companies trying to commercialize their technologies.
One company that up-listed from the OTC market to commercialize 3D bioprinting was Organovo, a company that spent a lot of effort on how they were perceived, yet failed to meet the revenue expectations they set. We recently wrote a piece on “Why Organovo Stock Continues to Drop,” noting how the founder who no longer works for the company but has an equity stake is having a tussle with Organovo’s Board while no solid strategy exists for the company’s future. Another publicly traded 3D bioprinting stock to be avoided is CollPlant Stock: Collagen, 3D Bioprinting, and BioInks.
While Organovo flails, plenty of other 3D bioprinting companies are making progress. One of these is Swedish firm BICO Group which is publicly traded and seeing strong revenue growth from selling 3D bioprinting consumables and acquiring like mad (eight companies in 2021 alone). Not to mention you have companies like Switzerland’s InSphero that are developing organs-on-chips which emulate human tissues for drug testing and don’t require the need to 3D print anything.
3D printing was originally envisioned as a technology that would be ubiquitous in businesses and homes. Instead of mass production like body parts for cars, 3D printing has largely found its place in prototyping, with some exceptions.
- The aerospace industry has taken a liking to 3D printing with companies like Rocket Lab now 3D printing rocket parts.
- Shoemakers have found some usefulness in 3D printing for footwear and podiatry.
- A handful of companies are now 3D printing eye ware, both frames and lenses.
- At least eight startups are trying to 3D print food, even using 3DP for assembling alternative proteins.
- At least one company is 3D printing houses and selling them.
But where 3D printing technology has the most impact is when it is combined with other existing technologies. Around the time consumer 3D printing had reached the peak of its hype cycle, businesses were starting to look at new business models for 3D printing that would optimize utilization – like on-demand manufacturing and smart manufacturing.
Another term for 3D printing is “additive manufacturing” because parts are created by adding materials until a particular form is achieved. The alternative method would be “subtractive manufacturing” which is where you take a solid piece of metal and then “carve out” the part – for example, CNC milling or laser cutting. 3D printing metals is a popular use case for additive manufacturing because so little waste is generated. An emerging business model for 3D printing is something we call “on-demand manufacturing” – also called distributed manufacturing – where customers order parts based on what they need and the service provider decides what method to use – subtractive or additive or even a combination of both. This means that smaller lots can be ordered and manufacturing becomes more accessible to smaller businesses.
One publicly traded company playing in this space is Protolabs which embarked into 3D printing around 2015 as a small part of what they did (around 7% of total revenues), and which today is showing the strongest growth for any one of their other segments. What Protolabs does is operate a huge number of industrial machines that are capable of producing elastomer, plastic, and metal parts. The company specializes in “low-volume 3D printed, CNC-machined, sheet metal, and injection-molded custom parts for prototyping and short-run production.” There are plenty of competitors in this space, some of which we covered in our piece on Six Manufacturing-as-a-Service Companies. The two leading companies in on-demand manufacturing right now – at least the publicly traded ones – are Xometry and Protolabs. We’ve talked about Why We’re Long Protolabs Stock But Not Shapeways Stock, though we may not be long Protolabs much longer if they don’t start showing revenue growth. (UPDATE 3/8/2023: We sold Protolabs stock in 2022 and Xometry in 2023.) We’re left wondering if distributed manufacturing is reaching its limits. In other words, can it ever progress beyond high mix, low volume jobs?
Outside of 3D printing, companies like Kornit are looking to introduce on demand manufacturing in the textiles industry.
3D Printing and Distributed Manufacturing
Another business model being implemented is the notion of distributed manufacturing where all the world’s 3D printers are connected into a giant network and print jobs are passed to the network and fulfilled by the most economical printer to use. One company dabbling in this space is France’s own Sculpteo which offers a cloud-based 3D Printing service that attracted both Staples and Hewlett-Packard as partners. Another is 3D Hubs which has a network of global partners to perform manufacturing using 3D printing or other techniques like CNC machining. The company claims to be “the global leader in distributed manufacturing,” and was recently acquired by Protolabs, something we covered in our piece on Investing in 5 Manufacturing on Demand Stocks.
3D Printed Electronics.
The world’s first 3D electronics printer was said to come from a startup called Voxel8 back in early 2015. Their digital fabrication system is now used for limited production runs of high-performance athletic footwear uppers and sporting goods. They’ve since changed their name to BrightVolt and describe themselves as a” maker of Flexion brand thin, flexible lithium polymer battery strips used in credit cards with advanced security features, RFIDs, and small medical devices.” Another startup called Kateeva uses inkjet printing to create OLEDs. Is that “3D” printing? Maybe not, but it all falls under the umbrella of printed electronics. One publicly traded stock in this space is Nano Dimension.
3D Printing Penny Stocks
In all the time we’ve been covering 3D printing as an investment thesis, no company has been more notorious for broken promises than Sigma Labs, a company we questioned time and time again as they continued to disappoint investors with a track record of broken promises. We would ignore the glossy investor decks and dig into the SEC filings to find all the broken promises made over the years. They weren’t the only ones.
When 3D printing hit peak popularity in the investment community, the over-the-counter roaches started coming out of the woodwork. We started zapping them as they popped up, companies like:
- Makism (MDDD) – According to the SEC, Makism “is delinquent in its periodic filings with the Commission, having not filed any periodic reports since it filed a Form 10-K for the period ended June 30, 2014, which reported a net loss of $530,704 for the prior year.”
- 3D MakerJet – We told our readers not to invest in this stock, and if you ignored that advice, here’s what would have happened to your shares.
- Graphene 3D Labs – Previously touted by the same moron (he knows who he is) who was promoting Sigma Labs. He would come around and tell us how we were “missing the boat.” Two duds, same outcome. After the stock lost most of its value, the company renamed to G6 Materials Corp.
- 3d-Graphtech – Was supposed to source graphite for graphene from a company they were trying to do a reverse merger with. Seems to have completely fizzled out.
- 3D Pioneer Systems – Now has a market cap of less than $500,000. As we said six years ago, not much to see here.
- Rainbow Coral Corp – Another absolute mess of a company that now has a market cap that’s less than the value of your house, even if you live in Detroit. In other words, shareholders were completely fleeced.
While everyone should know to stay far clear of all over-the-counter (OTC) stocks and penny stocks, there were also companies that traded on exchanges across the globe which proved problematic.
If that’s the first time you’ve heard someone advise you to avoid penny stocks, make sure you know about the other pitfalls there are for beginning investors. It’s something we cover in our Complete Guide to Buying Stocks for Beginners.
3D Printing Stocks That Need Revenues
- One Israeli company called Nano Dimensions had an IPO in 2015 promising to give us the world’s first desktop-sized 3D printer that could print multi-layer circuit boards. Fast forward three years later and we see analysts being paid to say flattering things about the stock while it continues to plummet, decimating the returns of any investor who bought shares at IPO time.
- Then there was a Canadian company called Tinkerine that was supposed to do all these great things with 3D printing for the education sector. Last we checked, their stock and revenues were plummeting.
- Another Canadian company called Zecotek Photonics decided to engage in “3D printing by press release,” and now their shares trade for one penny and they’re “restructuring.”
- Across the pond is Australian 3D printing stock Titomic which talks about how their giant printers are being used to print rockets. Maybe they should try to print some revenues instead, because you cannot be in a high-growth industry like 3D printing and then not have revenue growth. It’s even worse if you have no meaningful revenues at all.
- Another Australian 3D printing company that hasn’t been able to muster up revenues is Aurora Labs. Four years after we highlighted the stock, they haven’t been able to breach the $1 million annual revenues mark.
Perhaps some of the most blatant incompetency was seen on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
3D Printers on Kickstarter
We’ve always warned people about the dangers of crowdfunding campaigns on platforms like Kickstarter, but 3D printing seemed to have an excessive number of projects, things like $100 3D printers. While companies like Formlabs ran successful crowdfunding campaigns to pre-sell their printers, most projects over-promised and under-delivered.
3D Printing Startups
Venture capitalists have been pouring money into 3D printing startups, hoping to take advantage of all the potential growth. Every year, we take a look at the 3D printing startups getting the most funding. Highlights from each year include:
- 2016 – after the 3D printing bubble burst in 2014, 3D printing pivoted towards industrial applications, shedding most of the hype surrounding consumer printers. The most funded startups included all three companies that later went on to become unicorns: Carbon, Formlabs, and Desktop Metal.
- 2017 – the year marked a rebound in VC funding for 3D printing startups with a 9% increase year-over-year. Carbon joined the unicorn club with its $200 million Series D round in December.
- 2018 – funding momentum continued in 2018 with Formlabs and Desktop Metal achieving unicorn status as well. The startup which took the most funding however was SmileDirectClub with a whopping $380 million. The company is printing customized invisible braces and was listed on Nasdaq in Q3 2019 with less success than it hoped for.
- 2019 – while 3D printing stocks posted dismal performance in 2019, the startups that received the most funding remained two unicorns, Carbon and Desktop Metal. Three Chinese startups also made the top ten as proof of China’s attempt to kick America’s ass in yet another major tech industry.
Three 3D Printing Unicorns
Perhaps the most exciting – or at least the most well-known 3D printing startups – are the mythical unicorns that have managed to achieve valuations that exceed one billion dollars. They include Formlabs which claims to be the world’s largest seller of stereolithography 3D printers worldwide, Carbon which wants to 3D print 1000X faster, and Desktop Metal which wants to be 100X faster than other 3D metal printers but at 20X times lower cost. In Fall of 2020, Desktop Metal decided to offer shares to the public, something we covered in our piece on Desktop Metal Stock and Additive Manufacturing 2.0. As for buying shares in Desktop Metal, we’re having difficulty committing, something we wrote about in a piece titled Desktop Metal Stock: It’s Not You, It’s Us.
3D Printing Stocks and ETFs
The first thing you need to understand about the 3D printing market is that there is no designated industry classification for 3D printing stocks. This means that you need to investigate each company that claims to be involved in 3D printing to make sure they’re not a 3D printing pretender. Back in the days of 3D printing hype, many companies were trying to attach the term 3D printing to whatever it was they did and then make sure word got out to investors. A few paragraphs of statements buried in the financials was enough to get your share price to soar.
Other companies like Groupe Gorge were making bolt-on acquisitions hoping to benefit from the growth of 3D printing. Then you had larger companies like General Electric dabbling in 3D printing, yet the overall revenue contributions were minimal (and still are today). That’s why investment management firm Ark Invest put together a 3D printing ETF, though some of the constituents seem loosely related to the 3D printing theme.
Back in the heyday of 3D printing there were two flagship stocks that could do nothing wrong – 3D Systems and Stratasys. Then along came the ExOne IPO which has done nothing but disappoint investors so far. Perhaps the most flamboyant example of 3D printing excess was 3D Systems which was acquiring companies left and right and seemed to be losing focus on what mattered. Having will.i.am as your Chief Creative Officer makes for a good press release but it doesn’t pay the bills. Then, everything crashed, leading us to wonder if 2015 was the year to buy 3D printing stocks. Today, we’re still wondering what will come of original gangsters like 3D Systems, ExOne, and Stratasys, which all seem focused on reigning in costs and coming up with new strategies for growth. At the same time, new entrants are going public like Markforged, Velo3D, and Xometry.
Another company to IPO around the time of peak 3D printing hype was Germany’s VoxelJet which builds some of the largest 3D printers on the market. They haven’t fared well, with a May 2020 market cap of just $5 million. A year later saw a 3D printing IPO from Materialise to operate what they believed was the largest 3D printing services center in the world.
In 2018 they were actually profitable, which is a step ahead of many other 3D printing companies we’ve talked about so far. They were doing quite well for themselves in terms of revenue growth, but now they’re facing some stiff competition from Protolabs.
If you invested in 3D printing stocks at peak hype, you would have lost a lot of money. In a 2019 article, we lamented about the poor performance of 3D printing stocks and decided to start revisiting some of the names in the list along with new entrants to see what promises the industry holds as opposed to the ones that have been broken over the years by many of the 3D printing stocks we’ve talked about today. In late 2020, 3D printing stocks saw a resurgence in interest, something we wrote about in a piece titled Why Have 3D Printing Stocks Been Going Up Lately?