Whether you're a potential 3D printing investor or an existing one, here's a very broad and brief overview to get you up to speed fast on the current environment for 3D printing stocks.

The former high-flying pure plays got grounded in 2014

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3D printing stocks, in general, have seen considerable price run-ups in recent years, so it's perhaps not surprising that the group has come crashing down.

Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and Arcam (NASDAQOTH:AMAVF) have been performing better than 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE), and voxeljet (NYSE:VJET), largely because they've turned in solid earnings reports in 2014. A big factor in voxeljet's poor relative performance, however, is timing: It went public in October 2013 while 3D printing mania was in full force, so its valuation was bid up to stratospheric levels. 

The longer-term performance pictures are prettier

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Leading companies 3D Systems and Stratasys are the only industry pure plays that have been publicly traded for at least three years. 

Major non-pure plays are less volatile
Dassault Systemes and Autodesk make computer-aided design software, which is used in a variety of applications, including 3D printing. Also, earlier this year, Autodesk released Spark, its open 3D-printing platform. 

Proto Labs provides quick-turnaround prototyping and smaller production runs. It's mainly involved in conventional manufacturing, but recently expanded into 3D printing. 

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Hewlett-Packard's a potential future threat 

Hp

Conceptual design of HP's 3D printer. Source: Hewlett-Packard.

In October, Hewlett-Packard announced plans to bring an enterprise-focused 3D printer based upon its Multi Jet Fusion technology to market in 2016. The printer will reportedly be 10 times faster than those powered by the leading 3D-printing technologies. 

Investors in 3D printing stocks shouldn't be overly concerned at this point. There's a big difference between announcing a compelling product and successfully bringing it to market. Additionally, no single technology will likely ever be the best fit for all applications and materials. However, investors shouldn't underestimate the potential threat deep-pocketed HP presents. 

Stratasys and Arcam are revenue growth leaders

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Stratasys and Arcam are the only two pure plays that have been posting the kind of revenue growth we'd expect from companies occupying a fast-growing space. 

Only 3D Systems and Arcam are profitable 

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3D Systems and Stratasys are pursuing turbocharged growth strategies that involve sacrificing short-term profits in order to increase long-term growth prospects. So, profits from a generally accepted accounting principles basis are under pressure. Stratasys doesn't stack up favorably to 3D Systems here, but that's largely because of its 2012 megamerger with Objet and its 2013 acquisition of MakerBot. Analysts expect Stratasys to return to profitability next year. 

A look at valuations

Company

Market Cap

Price/Sales

P/E

Forward P/E 

5-Yr. PEG

3D Systems

$3.8 billion

6.2

171 32.6 2.2

Stratasys

$4.7 billion

6.9

N/A 31.3

1.8

ExOne

$301 million

7.9

N/A

N/A

(0.4)

Arcam

$438 million

10.6

63.5

N/A

N/A

voxeljet

$185 million

11.6

N/A

N/A

N/A

Source: Yahoo! Finance; data to Dec. 4.

If analysts' growth projections prove accurate, Stratasys is the better investment among the two leaders, given its forward P/E and five-year PEG (P/E divided by projected growth) are lower. 

Analysts don't expect ExOne to be profitable in five years, as indicated by its negative PEG. 

Powerful projected growth 

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Data source: Wohlers Associates.

Global revenue from 3D printing grew 34.9% year over year in 2013. More important, industry analyst Wohlers Associates expects the market to exceed $21 billion in 2020 -- more than a 31% average annual growth rate.  

While 2014 has battered the 3D printing stocks, valuations have come down while projected growth rates for the industry have increased. If competition remains in check, select 3D printing stocks could rise again over the long term. This remains a volatile group that only risk-tolerant investors should be considering.

Beth McKenna owns shares of Arcam. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Dassault Systemes S.A. (ADR), ExOne, Proto Labs, and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, ExOne, Proto Labs, 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.