What if we are wildly underestimating the potential of 3-D printing? What if stocks like Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), are still just barely touching the surface of the potential of this new form of manufacturing? What if we are on the brink of an entirely new industrial revolution? 3-D printing may be a bigger part of the future than we realize.

The Cube 3 3-D printer, made by 3D Systems, is moving the industry one step closer toward prices low enough for mass consumer adoption. The printer is for sale a at a pre-order price of just $999. Image source: Cubify.

The difficulty of predicting global and exponential growth
Predicting the potential prospects of a revolution isn't easy. Before Apple's iPad took off, for instance, the naysayers seemed to be lining up to throw verbal tomatoes at the potential for tablets. In 2010, VentureBeat was dead wrong when it said tablet computers would "fail to become the Next Big Thing." Even after the iPad was unveiled, the device's potential was doubted. Business Insider called the iPad "A Big Yawn." The doubters, it turns out, were way off mark. 

As it turns out, such naysayers should be forgiven. Predicting the progress of a new technology is a difficult task. In "Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think," authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler explain: "Today's global and exponential world is very different from the one that our brain evolved to comprehend." In the past, progress often occurred on a linear scale, and only locally.

In other words, despite how difficult it may be, we should expect to be completely blown away by progress and the rate of adoption of nascent technologies from time to time -- because our brains aren't trained to make predictions about the future this way.

Kotler and Diamandis explain further:

The disconnect between the local and linear wiring of our brain and the global and exponential reality of our world is creating what I call a "disruptive convergence." Technologies are exploding and conjoining like never before, and our brains can't easily anticipate such rapid transformation.

Is 3-D printing going to blow past expectations?
It's possible. While it would be naive to jump to the conclusion that companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems, two companies with business models tied directly to the 3-D printing industry, are automatically going to grow sales at sustained, high levels beyond what investors and analysts expect, it also doesn't mean that we should ignore the possibility.

The opportunity in 3-D printing is enormous.

Already, potential applications of additive printing seem to be growing faster than the industry itself. It's used by countless companies for countless purposes. The uses are as complex as for parts on the next-generation NASA moon rover, robots, and prosthetic limbs, or as simple as wrenches, eyeglasses, and lampshades.

Stratasys' uPrint SE printers already enable thousands of professional design engineers to test their ideas. Image source: Stratasys.

For a high-volume example, imagine a 3-D printer being used to print out on the spot replacement parts for engines, enabling auto shops to reduce inventory and provide faster and better service. University of Southern California engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has even developed a concrete-extruding 3-D printer that is capable of building low-cost, multi-room housing for the developing world. Imagine the proliferation of affordable housing in areas where well-built shelter is currently considered a luxury.

A company-specific example includes Stratasys' desktop printer line under its MakerBot brand. Targeting consumers, it's clear that Stratasys aims for its desktop printers someday to be as widely adopted as inkjet printers are today. Or consider 3D Systems' rapid prototyping printers that dramatically cut research and development expenditures and the time involved to build product prototypes. Of course, both companies' 3-D printing related product, material, and services portfolios stretch far beyond these two examples.

But knowledge is power. So, instead of guessing whether or not 3-D printing companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems are poised to disrupt a number of industries, why not take a closer look at the rapidly evolving technology in this free report?

Daniel Sparks owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Apple, and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.