Over the last two years 3D printing stocks have been on fire.Stratasys Ltd. (Nasdaq: SSYS) has earned investors a two-year return of roughly 131%, while my favorite player, 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE: DDD), has delivered 255% gains.
I can't say I'm surprised. As I wrote last March, 3D printing is a $1 trillion dollar industry in the making.
It's what's known as a "disruptive technology."
And by the end of this decade, everyone from consumers to big businesses will be able to make their own unique products in just a couple of hours.
There's only one problem: Aside from Stratasys and 3D Systems, there haven't been many other ways for investors to play this hot market
Not only that, but the industry has gone through a consolidation as these two firms have snapped up several of the smaller players.
That has left investors with very few options-until now.
One is a company called ExOne, an outfit that develops and manufactures high-end 3D printing systems and printed products for industrial customers like Boeing, Ford Motor and Caterpillar.
The company has filed for a $68.3 million offering priced between $14 and $16 a share to trade on the Nasdaq under the symbol XONE. It could launch by the end of this week's trading.
The other is a name that is a little more familiar and it revolves around a hot new patent.
iRobot's Big Move Into 3D Printing
I'm talking about iRobot Corp. (NasdaqGS: IRBT) which has unveiled a new design that will also put it squarely in the 3D space.
And in plans it has sketched out to the federal government, iRobot seems to have no intention of becoming just another "me too" entry in the 3D printing space.
Instead, iRobot wants to take this already advanced tech to the next level.
See, right now the process is largely run by machines -- the computer runs the program and the printer makes the objects such as auto parts, medical devices and military components.
Ease of use is one of the big selling points. But the process is not completely automated.
Among other things, people still have to feed special polymers into the printer - the "ink" that the objects are made from -- or they have to assemble the final product in some manner.
And that's where iRobot believes it has a competitive advantage. After all, it remains a leader in robots for the Pentagon and for the home.
Now iRobot wants to automate the whole 3D printing process.
That's the vision behind its new "Robotic Fabricator." It's a completely autonomous all-in-one product that has the 3D industry all abuzz.
It started when the firm recently filed to get a patent for the design to protect its barriers to entry.
iRobot hasn't said when it hopes to market the new work stations or if it will use them to simply drive down the cost of making its own robots, which would improve profit margins and earnings for investors.
But the company has described how the new fabricators will function.
First, though, a comparison of existing 3D printing standards will help shed some light on iRobot's new approach.
For instance, let's say a printed object requires an "overhang"-- like what you would consider a "lip" on a kitchen countertop. Or maybe a printed object becomes so big as more layers of materials are added that it needs to have some type of support.
In both instances, a human being will be required to insert that device and then remove it later.
iRobot says it believes that the required labor alone builds inefficiencies into the process, because by definition it takes extra steps to finish the printed good.
The company also says there's the benefit of improved quality control from its new design.
Connectors and fasteners are often used to secure multiple components, while fusing parts together requires a seam. Such means of assembly are frequent sources of failure, which not only reduces quality but leads to higher costs.
iRobot's Robotic Fabricator seeks to change all that by reducing the need for human labor and increasing product quality.
Moreover, the company wants to equip the work station with sophisticated sensors as well as scanners to make precise measurements or check on the quality of electrical contacts.
Ironically, iRobot hasn't made its plans public. But when the tech trades came across the patent application, the design quickly became the talk of the growing 3D printing community.
A New Path to Profits
iRobot's foray into 3D printing comes as the firm seeks ways to address the tight defense budgets that have slammed the Pentagon's suppliers. Besides leaving Iraq, the Obama administration wants a smaller U.S. military footprint overall.
That means less demand for such products as its mini four-wheeler spy bot that can observe hostiles in close quarters. Ditto for its pack-bots that help carry loads of heavy supplies.
So, faced with lean times for the military, iRobot clearly could use a new source of sales that goes beyond its current line of home bots that vacuum, scrub floors, or clean out rain gutters.
It recently announced that the FDA had given its approval to begin selling a new "telemedicine" robot for use inside hospitals. The new bot can operate autonomously, has access to health records and can link doctor and patient for "virtual" conferences.
Clearly, the medbot has a greater chance of grabbing immediate sales than does the Robotic Fabricator at this point.
However, iRobot's decision to tap into the growing 3D printer market shows that it wants to find new ways of doing business in what I call the Era of Radical Change.
And what could be more cutting edge than a robotic workstation that can go from raw materials to finished product all on its own?
No matter how you slice it, the 3D printing industry will continue to bring new breakthroughs that can only be of benefit to users and investors alike.