A New Take on Printing

The latest issue of Business 2.0 is dedicated to finding the next great disruptive companies -- firms that might one day challenge General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , and even Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) . Among other articles, the magazine charts the rise of rapid prototyping, also known as 3-D printing. It's an increasingly affordable technology that could have a big impact on business in the coming years.

Rapid prototyping uses computer-aided-design (CAD) data to help build physical objects layer by layer in three dimensions. In most cases, layers of liquids or powdered plastics are deposited by a printer, then sintered together into a computer-generated shape using ultraviolet light or a laser beam.

Today, the leading companies in the field are 3D Systems (Nasdaq: TDSC  ) and Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) , as well as two private companies -- Z Corporation and Desktop Factory.

Interestingly, Desktop Factory is soon expected to begin producing a 3-D printer for $5,000, and the others have indicated that the price might drop to less than $2,000 within the next few years. Such printers can be used to manufacture everything from automobile and airplane spare parts to custom-made plastic toys and personalized Second Life avatar figurines.

To understand the significance of this development, it's important to know that just a decade ago, such machines cost more than $100,000, and were the purview of large companies like BMW and Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) . Today, the cost has dropped to between $10,000 and $50,000, and the number of companies capable of purchasing these machines has increased correspondingly.

If the price continues to plummet, the number of companies using these machines could explode. This will be especially true as a new generation of designers comes to understand that they can easily create complex shapes and parts to produce new products that were previously too expensive, if not impossible, to manufacture.

Wohler Associates, a consulting firm specializing in tracking development in the emerging field of rapid prototype manufacturing, has estimated that the market for these machines will grow 360% to 15,000 units by 2012.

All in all, those numbers bear watching. If you're interested in reading more about the field, I'd encourage you to take a free gander at this month's issue of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter, where I've penned a lengthier article on the subject, "3-D Printing: The Shape of Things to Come?"

Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. BMW is a Stock Advisor selection.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology. He does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.

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