Acquisition Rumors About MakerBot Aside, 3-D Printing Poised to Grow

A hornet’s nest of gossip buzzed up over the weekend about alleged talks between desktop 3-D printer producer MakerBot Industries in Brooklyn and Minnesota’s Stratasys. Though neither company will comment, the rampant speculation about an acquisition deal speaks to the fast rise of 3-D printing.

Zack Schildhorn, vice president and director of operations with New York’s Lux Capital, says 3-D printing, which has been around for decades, is catching on gradually with the public.

“The advent of companies like MakerBot, which turn this esoteric, prototyping technology into something that people could have on their desktops, is inspiring,” he says. Shapeways, a New York-based 3-D printing on-demand business, is one of Lux’s portfolio companies.

In the early days, 3-D printing was largely used for creating models and mockups of products and even buildings. This growing community of companies, though, offers hobbyists and other consumers the chance to create and sell objects based on their own designs.

Zack Schildhorn of Lux Capital.

The ability to share such designs over the Web can increase interest in 3-D printing, Schildhorn says. “The technology has reached a point where in some cases it is capable of making real products in a very different way,” he says. “That’s causing many big companies to rethink what is possible.”

For now, the industry is humming with the rumors about MakerBot, which on Friday unveiled its new 55,000-square-foot factory in Brooklyn to produce its 3-D printers. Regardless of what may or may not be happening between Stratasys and MakerBot, consolidation has already come to this market.

Last year, Stratasys merged with Israel’s Objet. One of the largest players in the market, 3D Systems, absorbed Vidar Systems and Z Corp. last year.

Schildhorn expects 3-D printers to continue to improve in function, but wonders what use-cases consumers may find for them. “We’ll see more printers at lower cost and that are better,” he says. “Will people print all of their goods at home instead of going to a store? I don’t think so.”

The 3-D printing market, he says, has many ways to serve consumers, designers and businesses that want new ways to make products. Schildhorn believes that Shapeways’s approach, using industrial 3-D printers to create objects when ordered, is complementary to the print-at-home format.

“Anyone who ones a desktop 3-D printer at some point will want to make something in higher quality, using different material, or more volume,” Schildhorn says. Small businesses as well as individual designers, he says, may also desire Shapeways’s services.

The industry, he says, is still in the early stages of its latest evolution. “This space has so much potential,” he says. “In five years we’ll look back and say this was just the beginning.”

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