Thursday, 9 January 2014

The 3D printing acquisition juggernaut

Remember the merger of Stratasys and Objet? Or the acquisition of ZCorp by 3D Systems? As we observed, consolidation is not necessarily a sign of a perfectly healthy industry. It could mean companies are struggling to go it alone. It could also signify that the Additive Manufacturing industry is shifting from products to services, a process known as 'servitization'. When an industry shifts to services there is always a rush to become THE total solution provider.

Preeminent among the the acquirers is 3D Systems. We have reported on their long history of acquisitions before. What looked like perfectly good companies all became units within the 3D Systems umbrella.

Why are good companies with good products not able to make it on their own? There are two factors:

1. In an industry shifting to services, product companies lose their route to market. 3D Systems is now that route to market.

2. Despite the media hype and inflated expectations of a 3D revolution, Additive Manufacturing is a quiet evolution. It is a niche within manufacturing, slowly absorbed, one part at a part. It is not one technology - but many different processes each requiring its own hardware - a set of niches within a niche.

And more and more acquisitions are announced almost every month. The latest by 3D Systems include:

Figulo a specialist in the 3D printing of ceramics and whose products and services will now be marketed under the 3D Systems brand CeraJet.

TheSugarLab, a specialist in the 3D printing of edible products and whose products and services will now be marketed under the 3D systems brand ChefJet.

Village Plastics, a supplier of 3D printing filaments.

Gentle Giant Studios, a 3D sculpting, VFX and 3D scanning specialist sitting on a large body of content.

3D Systems now describes itself as "a leading provider of 3D printing centric design-to-manufacture solutions including 3D printers, print materials and cloud sourced on-demand custom parts for professionals and consumers alike in materials including plastics, metals, ceramics and edibles."

3D Systems have been patiently waiting for AM to go mainstream for over twenty years. It was the RepRap community and the companies it spawned (notably Makerbot and Ultimaker) that opened up the consumer, 'maker' and the arts and design opportunities. Another factor was the emergence of on-demand, self-service, Web-based bureau services such as Shapeways, iMaterialize and Sculpteo. (I call these '3D Experiences'. 3D Systems now has its own 'Cube' series of products and services.)

The rush is on.

3D Systems appears to be trading R&D dollars for acquisitions. For CEO Avi Reichental the challenge will be cross-selling among its businesses and integration of the very diverse portfolio of products it owns. To what extent such acquisitions, as opposed to innovation, can bolster the company's share price will only become evident once the hype around 3D printing dies down.

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