If you're an investor following the hot additive manufacturing -- aka 3-D printing -- space, you're likely aware that Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman recently announced that HP would enter the 3-D printing market by mid-2014. Not surprisingly, this news has led to considerable buzz about 3-D printing buyouts -- but not all of it's worth acting on. Here's what you should know to avoid being misled.
Additive manufacturing acquisition speculation that doesn't add up
When a big company announces it's going to enter a new market, it's reasonable to believe it could do so via a buyout. So it's only natural that Whitman's announcement has ignited a second big round of acquisition speculation in the 3-D printing space. (The first had General Electric pegged as the odds-on-favorite to make a bid for ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE) last spring, which never happened.)
However, the buzz that Hewlett-Packard could have the three smaller publicly traded 3-D printer manufacturers -- ExOne, Arcam (NASDAQOTH:AMAVF), and voxeljet (NYSE:VJET) -- on its potential takeover list just doesn't add up. Stranger things have surely happened, and HP is in turnaround mode, so it could go for a moonshot. However, it seems more likely that Meg Whitman would 3-D print herself up a retirement villa and ditch her CEO hat than make a bid for one of these companies.
The core reason it seems an extreme long shot that HP would be interested in buying one of these 3-D printers is the lack of synergy between these companies and HP's existing businesses. HP is involved in the business/professional and consumer markets. It's well-known for its 2-D printers, which first appeared in places of business, and later made their way into many homes. Its printing segment is still one of its four largest businesses, alongside personal systems (largely PCs), enterprise group (computer hardware for businesses), and enterprise services (IT-related consulting).
ExOne and Arcam make high-end 3-D printers for the industrial market; neither has any offerings in the consumer or commercial space. ExOne targets automakers and others, while Arcam exclusively focuses on the aerospace and medical implant industries.
Newly public company voxeljet (yes, small "v") also targets the industrial market, though it also makes products for commercial uses. Like ExOne and Arcam, we're talking very high-end systems – about $160,000 to $2 million, in voxeljet's case. And like ExOne, we're also talking very large machines. Arcam has somewhat smaller models, though they're still a far cry from the size of the desk-top models for consumers and professionals offered by the two larger 3-D printing companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys.
ExOne's and Arcam's lack of plastics capabilities alone would make them highly unlikely acquisition targets for a company such as HP. Engineers who make prototypes or models of most consumer goods products are primarily doing so in plastics.
HP could not bundle a big $1 million piece of machinery which 3-D prints sand molds (in ExOne's and voxeljet's case) or just metals (in Arcam's case) and needs to go on a factory floor with its office-focused products. Well, it could, but it doesn't seem like it would provide it with any competitive advantages.
Straight from the CEO's mouth
When in doubt about speculation, investors should go straight to the primary source.
The Register, which first reported the story, quoted Whitman as saying that HP is asking "how do we commercialize to print faster, at lower price points, to enable service providers?" It also reported that Whitman provided no specifics on HP's planned 3-D printing product, other than saying it would be "new technology."
So HP seems to have its sights sets on developing and/or acquiring new technology, not technology already offered by existing companies. Additionally, the bit about enabling service providers makes it sound like a product and/or service which would help speed up the operations of companies providing on-demand 3-D printing services is a possibility. All of the publicly traded companies with the exception of Arcam have such operations.
It would certainly make sense for HP to offer a product and/or service that's complementary to those offered by the 3-D printing companies, rather than a competitive product, if -- a big "if" -- it can pull off such a feat. Offering something similar will almost surely lead to price competition, with resultant profit margin contraction for most or all involved.
In short, while there could be some solid reasons to buy the stocks of ExOne, Arcam, and/or voxeljet, a buyout by Hewlett-Packard is likely not one of them.