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The Time Is Now for the Next Major Manufacturing Movement

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Part of the fun of investing in technology stocks comes from getting to participate in emerging trends -- taking part in ushering in the next big wave of innovation to the global economy. Sound over the top? Perhaps, but every so often a trend emerges that holds the potential to unlock another major wave of innovation, and investors everywhere will do well to take notice before that wave passes them by.

One such emerging trend, and one that gets plenty of attention from us here at the Fool, has been the rise of 3-D printing. However, the 3-D printing trend is only part of a much larger sea change, one that could help both upend and reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing -- the Maker movement.

The making of a revolution
This trend's received plenty of attention of late from many media outlets. Chief among its proponents is Chris Anderson, Wired magazine's editor-in-chief, recent author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, and CEO of the open-source manufacturing companies 3D Robotics and DIY Drones. As an observer of many of the most essential trends in technology at Wired since 2001 and The Economist before he came to Wired, Chris is about as qualified as they come in identifying the developing trends driving technology today. He's betting big on this trend, too, having announced he will step down from Wired to focus full-time on running 3D Robotics.

Credit: MCAEvents.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Chris at Wired magazine and the Marriott's Culturazzi event at the Union Square Marriott in San Francisco to discuss the Makers movement and technology in general. For the readers out there who might be unfamiliar with this burgeoning trend, Chris described the Makers movement to me in the following way:

The Makers movement is what happens when the "Web generation" meets the real world. It is all those kinds of fantastic innovation models we've worked for over the last 20 years, things like community, collaboration, and openness on the Web, now applied to manufacturing. It is enabled, really, by a new generation of digital fabrication tools like 3-D printers that are cheap and easy to use. A little bit like the Macintosh was to personal computing in 1984 -- that's now true for personal manufacturing.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. Every major technology reaches an inflection point where it breaks out of what was its early niche and takes center stage. So if the time is now for open-source manufacturing, 3-D printing, and the like, why today?

Again to use the analogy with the personal computer, let's say the first personal computer was the Apple  (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) II, say in 1977. ... The Apple II was technically a personal computer, but it wasn't clear what you'd want it for. You could program it, but it didn't have a lot of applications, and it was a little bit hard to use. There were lots of them, but it didn't really change the world. It was more things like the Macintosh, the moment when it became easy enough to use that everybody could. It had things like desktop publishing. It had a laser printer and a graphical user interface.

It wasn't the invention of the technology. It was the mainstreaming of the technology. And that's right where we are right now with digital fabrication tools. We've had 3-D printers for 20 years, laser cutters, CNC machines, 3-D scanners. They've been around forever in the industry, in the same way that the computer was there in industry as a mainframe, but they weren't for everybody, just like these digital fabrication tools weren't for everybody.

The makings of an opportunity
If this is indeed the case, and it certainly seems to be, this emerging trend represents an enormous opportunity for investors. Over the past several years, companies involved in this space such as 3D Systems  (NYSE: DDD  ) and Stratasys  (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) have stepped out of the realm of the hobbyist and into the limelight. These companies now boast products that are quickly approaching affordability for many consumers. 3D Systems' Cube printer runs only $1,299, which certainly isn't chump change, but it also isn't unimaginable for many households or small businesses. This is where the comparison with the early stages of the PC market rings especially true for the Makers movement -- the moment where the niche product finally approaches adaptability at scale. And that's why this trend, although nothing new, still looks to have its best days of growth lying squarely ahead of it.

Like many growth stocks, 3-D printing shares remain far from cheap. 3D Systems trades at nearly 66 times earnings, and Stratasys at an astronomical 88, and both have eviscerated the market so far this year, rallying a staggering 220% for 3D Systems and 150% for Stratasys. However, these stocks should still have plenty of room left to run. Analysts expect long-term growth rates for each of these companies of 16% and 18.3%, respectively.

And these weren't the only stocks Chris highlighted as potential winners from the emergence of the Makers movement. Stay tuned for the second article in my four-part series on the movement tomorrow, where I'll highlight a third way investors everywhere can get in on this booming industry.

3D Systems is at the leading edge of a disruptive technological revolution, with the broadest portfolio of 3-D printers in the industry. However, despite years of earnings growth, 3D Systems' share price has risen even faster, and today the company sports a dizzying valuation. To help investors decide whether the future of additive manufacturing is bright enough to justify the lofty price tag on the company's shares, The Motley Fool has compiled a premium research report on whether 3D Systems is a buy right now. In our report, we take a close look at 3D Systems' opportunities, risks, and critical factors for growth. You'll also find reasons to buy or sell, and you'll receive a full year of analyst updates with the report. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.

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