What Is 3D Printing?

The world of 3D printing is a vast and complex one. While it would be nice if there were one type of printer that manufactured a 3D object, this is not the case. So just what is 3D printing, and how does it work exactly?

There are several different ways to print a 3D object, but each way does so in a very similar manner. An object is created by depositing material or selectively bonding or fusing it layer by layer until a complex 3D object is formed. This process can be used on a variety of plastic materials and a few select metal compounds. Where 3D printing gets tricky is how these layers are created.

There are currently six mainstream technologies used in 3D printing today to create objects. They are material extrusion, binder and material jetting, powder bed fusion, vat photopolymerization, and sheet lamination. Two other technologies, directed energy deposition and bio-printing, are also in limited use.

Each technology is unique and has specific applications it’s well-suited for, as well as its own target market. Some technologies such as material extrusion, material jetting, and vat photopolymerization are farther into their development lifecycles, while technologies such as powder bed fusion are in earlier stages of development. Also, when thinking of the types of objects that can be printed, it’s prudent to know printing in plastic is far more advanced than printing in metal. The latter has only been around for 10 years, while plastic 3D printing has been around for nearly 30 years. 

Investing in 3D Printing

3D printing has garnered its fair share of media attention, and those interested in its potential would love to invest in the future of the technology. Thankfully, there are a handful of companies that allow investors to have exposure to this up and coming technology. In fact, there are multiple types of 3D printing companies who specialize in one or several technologies.

It’s also worth noting most 3D printing companies have three different ways they make money: selling printers to customers, selling material for use in those printers, and operating service centers. Service centers receive designs from customers and print them for a fee. Companies generally make the highest profit margins on material sales followed by printer sales and then service centers. This is referred to as the razorblade business model.

When evaluating 3D printing companies for investment, it’s important to know how their products are performing and whether the underlying technologies that have a bright future. Investors should also focus on companies’ profit margins and unit sales growth. This goes along with the usual focus on company strategy, management, shareholder relations, employee satisfaction, and customer service. Just because a company is in a game-changing field does not mean it’s excused from the normal investing criteria. 

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