If you've been following the 3-D printing space, you likely knew that it was just a matter of time before big companies around the globe would either enter this high-growth market, or expand beyond their home turfs to try to get as big a piece of the pie as possible.
While industry early movers typically have a long-term competitive advantage, the existing players -- 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE), Arcam (NASDAQOTH:AMAVF), and Voxeljet (NYSE:VJET) likely don't take Mitsubishi's plans to enter the North American market lightly. After all, this $32 billion market cap company, which generated revenue of $87 billion over the trailing 12-month period, is Japan's largest general trading company.
Here's what investors and potential investors in the 3-D printing space should know.
Meet the LUMEX Avance-25, the world's only hybrid 3-D printer
Mitsubishi will be landing on our continent's shores later this month with a unique machine to peddle -- a metals 3-D printer/high-speed milling machine hybrid, according to TCT Magazine.
The 3-D printer uses laser sintering, which is the most common broad technology employed by metals 3-D printers. Milling is a traditional, or subtractive, manufacturing technique, so this makes the LUMEX Avance-25, developed by Japan's Matsuura Machinery, an additive/subtractive manufacturing machine hybrid.
This hybrid 3-D printing machine, which is currently only available in Asia, is expected to be priced at 90 million yen (or about $846,000) when the company begins selling them in North America. Mitsubishi hopes to sell and deliver 10 machines in 2014, which would be quite impressive for its first year in the market.
The LUMEX Avance-25 can produce molds and dies using both 3-D printing and milling. This machine has an extremely high degree of accuracy, and can create components that have very complex geometries. Mitsubishi plans to target manufacturers in the medical, aerospace, and cell phone industries.
Whose turf is Mitsubishi invading?
Based upon the limited information out at this point, it seems that Mitsubishi's main publicly traded competition will likely be Arcam and 3-D Systems, and, perhaps to a lesser degree ExOne.
Arcam focuses exclusively on metals printers for the aerospace and medical implant industries -- two industries Mitsubishi plans to target.
ExOne and Voxeljet occupy the mold-making space – they make machines that print sand molds, which customers use to cast metal components. ExOne also has metals printing capabilities, while Voxeljet doesn't. However, Voxeljet and ExOne, though to a lesser extent, specialize in printers with larger build-boxes, whereas Mitsubishi's machine has a rather small build-box of 9.8x9.8X7-inch. So, it doesn't seem likely there will be much competition -- at least at this point -- between these companies. Of course, there's always the possibility that an Avance with a larger build-box could be on the horizon.
Industry juggernaut 3D Systems -- thanks to its Phenix Systems acquisition last summer -- also has a line of metal printers geared toward the industrial market. So, Mitsubishi could also be competing with 3D Systems. Fellow industry bigwig and (co-)first-mover Stratasys doesn't offer systems which can print in metals; however, its chairman has stated that the company is interesting in expanding into metals.
In addition to competing with other 3-D printing players, it seems quite likely that Mitsubishi's machine -- if it functions as well as it's being touted -- could expand the overall market due to its unique ability to be used as both a 3-D printer and a high-speed milling machine.
The Foolish takeaway
Competition in the 3-D printing space is heating up and should continue to do so. Hewlett-Packard previously announced plans to market a 3-D printing product by midyear, and now news is out that Japan's largest trading company will be entering the North American market with its unique hybrid 3-D printer later this month.
Stay tuned. I'll be following this story and will keep you up-to-date on what this happening could mean for your investments (or potential investments) in the 3-D printing space.