- A decade ago, innovative 3-D printing technology for the consumer and industry seemed poised to break out, led by MakerBot, Stratasys and Shapeways.
- 3-D printers are now used in manufacturing by companies including GE and Relativity Space.
- But as publicly traded companies, 3-D printing has struggled to produce consistent gains.
In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list, 10 years later.
The industry of 3-D printing started with creating trinkets and toys, but it is slowly making its way into mainstream industrial production lines.
The full range of what 3-D printing can accomplish ranges from the novelty (pools and cheesecakes) to the vital (custom human body parts such as the ear that just made headlines around the world and much-needed medical supplies during the initial Covid response). It also includes the potentially game-changing economy-wide applications, from 3-D printed homes to jet engine parts — GE started doing that years ago — and rockets, including those from two-time CNBC Disruptor Relativity Space.
3-D printing technology has exponentially progressed over the past decade, but it has not been a straight line up of financial success for companies like Shapeways and MakerBot (now part of Stratasys), which both made the original CNBC Disruptor 50 list in 2013.
For Shapeways, the idea began in the Philips' Electronics design department over a decade ago in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Then in 2012, it brought 3-D printing to the U.S. with a factory in Long Island City, Queens, housing 50 industrial printers and able to churn out millions of consumer-designed products a year, from art to fashion, lamps, necklaces, gadgets, games, drones, medical devices and robotics. It now claims to have helped partners produce over 21 million 3-D printed components and has also expanded to Livonia, Michigan.
Co-founder Robert Schouwenburg says when the company first started, 3-D printing was relatively new, and he and his co-founders were so intrigued by the idea of just pressing a button and an object coming out. They, however, were surprised when printing just a 4x4 cube cost $100. That moment sparked their interest in figuring out how to make the technology more affordable. Schouwenburg and his co-founders Marleen Vogelaar and Peter Weijmarshausen came up with the concept of allowing individuals to upload a part that they wanted to Shapeways' website, pricing it and then shipping it to them directly.
At the same time, companies like MakerBot, founded by former Seattle art teacher Bre Pettis and backed by Jeff Bezos, among others, was also entering the market and built Thingiverse, the largest 3-D printing community in the world, which boasts the largest installed base of 3-D printers. Stratasys, which focuses on additive manufacturing, and Makerbot, a leader in desktop 3-D printing, merged in 2013 to bring the two markets into one corporate entity. MakerBot continues to operate as a separate subsidiary of Stratasys, maintaining its own identity, products and go-to-market strategy.
With all the buzz about 3-D printing, manufacturers thought the technology could replace traditional industrial production quickly. But as with many disruptive technologies, innovative novelty is still a far way from scaling a business to compete with the cost structure of traditional industries.
"If you fast forward 10 years later, that didn't materialize, and we're still at that stage where 3-D printing is used more and more, but it hasn't replaced traditional manufacturing," Schouwenburg said. "It's just one of the many manufacturing technologies available to companies to use in their manufactured goods," he added.
The path of the original 3-D printing disruptors to the public market has taken a while. It was only last year, in October 2021, that Shapeways went public amid the SPAC frenzy in the market, via a merger with Galileo Acquisition Corp. Its performance since that deal, like many of its peer SPACs, has been abysmal, down nearly 90% from its first trade.
The theme has attracted the attention of one of the market's most closely watched disruptive stock investors: Cathie Wood of Ark Invest, which runs the 3D Printing ETF. Wood's 3D Printing ETF, which owns both Stratasys and Shapeways, has had a tough spell, too, like most of her funds focused on the high-potential growth stocks that have suffered the worst in the current bear market. Wood's ETF is up since its inception in 2016, but it is not a pure-play on 3-D printing, holding among its top stock picks tech giants including Microsoft and many broader industrial names.
Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC last year that its 3-D-printing process to build rockets requires thousands of less parts than traditional aerospace manufacturing and can be done in less than 60 days due to a simplified supply chain. In 2021, it expanded to a more than 1 million square foot former Boeing C-17 aircraft manufacturing plan, "an absolutely monstrous building," Ellis said, with "the scale for us to continue to grow in the next couple of years but also the next decades to come."
On both the industrial and consumer level, the technology has matured and has become more affordable, Schouwenburg says, but it hasn't offset system manufacturing technology. Though he too believes that much more change is coming within the next decade.
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