The fascinating 3D printing space has captured the attention -- and in some cases, the investing dollars -- of those on both Wall Street and Main Street. Investors have been salivating over the industry's projected growth dynamics: It's expected to grow at an average annual rate of more than 31% through 2020, according to industry expert Wohlers Associates.
Industry leaders 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) are well known to many investors. And when it comes to highlighting the applications powering this revolutionary technology's growth, certain industries and companies -- such as big-name industrials like General Electric -- seem to garner the lion's share of the financial press.
So, we asked the Fool's 3D printing specialists, Steve Heller and Beth McKenna, to each provide an example of an industry or space that provides a growth opportunity for 3D printing but seems to fly under the radar of many investors.
FBFX is the shop behind the props and costumes for last summer's blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by its owner The Walt Disney Co. It used 3D printing -- a Stratasys Objet500 Connex Multi-material 3D printer, to be exact -- to make various pieces, including the entire armor costume for the character Korath. This marked the first time the company has made a fully 3D-printed costume worn in a movie. So, not only is 3D printing touching a greater percentage of movie-making projects, but it's also being more widely used in many of them.
Character and prop creation for films -- as well as theatrical and other types of live performances -- is a space where just about every product is unique and needs to be custom-made. This makes it a perfect match for 3D printing. That's because one of the technology's most compelling strengths is its ability to produce prototypes as well as a single or relatively small numbers of products more quickly and economically than by conventional means. In fact, the use of 3D printing has saved at least 50% on costume and prop creation lead times, according to FBFX director Grant Pearmain.
Additionally, fantastical and elaborate things are often called for in this arena -- and 3D printing can be used to make products that can't be made by any other means. So, using 3D printing provides a huge competitive advantage, as "creativity" often separates the box-office blockbusters from the flops.
The synergy in this space makes wowing moviegoers an incredibly lucrative proposition. Not only does a megablocker film -- think Star Wars -- often spawn a series of subsequent films, it also usually leads to the creation of a wide-reaching media franchise including toys, TV series, computer and video games, etc. So, I think we're going to see an even greater use of 3D printing in filmmaking and other related entertainment spaces.
Steve Heller: One of the biggest under-the-radar 3D printing trends I'm keeping tabs on is 3D-printed food. No, not from those sugary 3D printers on the market today. Think more along the lines of combining DNA, 3D printing technology, and advanced science to create meat that's essentially grown in a lab. It sounds completely insane, but it could have staggering implications for humanity at large.
By 2050, it's expected that 70% more meat will be required to feed the world, which could become an environmental nightmare, considering that animal farming already takes up one-third of all available land on the planet, and is a leading contributor to climate change in terms of greenhouse emissions.
To address this challenge, Modern Meadow, a privately held Brooklyn-basedstart-up, is aiming to cultivate meat and leather that leverages technology inspired by 3D biological printing.
According to Modern Meadow, the advantages of producing lab-grown, high-quality protein are extremely compelling compared to conventional animal farming practices. The company claimsits cutting-edge processes could reduce land use by 99%, water consumption by 96%, greenhouse emissions by 96%, and energy by 45%. Additionally, the risk of animal welfare issues and livestock diseases would be completely obliterated.
Modern Meadow was co-foundedby a trio of scientists and an entrepreneur, three of which also co-founded the 3D bio-printing company Organovo, the organization behind developing 3D-printed liver tissue that can be used to help determine a potential drug's toxicity. Ping Fu, the chief entrepreneur officer at 3D Systems, also sits on Modern Meadow's advisory board.
Ultimately, Modern Meadow comes armed with a tremendous amount of bio-printing experience, which will help it fulfill its mission of cultivating meat and leather in a lab. Although Modern Meadow doesn't expect that we'll be eating its petri dish meat anytime soon, it's simply too big of a potential game-changer to stay under the radar.
Thanks, Beth and Steve! Maybe one day we'll see the marriage of these under-the-radar opportunities as we watch a character in a film -- driving a prop car that was 3D-printed -- pull up to a drive-through window to order a 3D-printed burger.