3D Printers: Big Customers First, Consumer Market Later – 3D Systems Corporation (DDD), Stratasys, Ltd. (SSYS)

One of the most talked about tech investments of 2012 and 2013 has been 3D printing companies. Investors have seen shares of top 3D printer manufacturers more than double over the past year, before cooling off a bit in late January. But with shares still well above where they were a year ago, investors are wondering whether it is time to buy, hold, or sell 3D printing companies.

3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD)

Now you too can have a 3D printer (but only if you can afford one)

It sounds like such an amazing idea. You want new smartphone? Print it at home. Need a new kidney? A 3D printer’s got it ready in hours. The imaginable potential of 3D printing is nearly limitless and reads like something out of Star Trek. However, investors must face the reality of what 3D printing technology can do, as well as looking at future prospects for 3D printing companies.

After years of living in corporate laboratories, the 3D printer is finally coming to the consumer level. However there are significant limits to these home-based printers gaining acceptance. Among the best known consumer 3D printers is the Cube, offered by 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) for a starting price of $1299. But this printer has major limits to it. It can only print an object up to 5.5” x 5.5” x 5.5” and can only print in one color. More expensive models allow for the printing of larger objects and more colors, but this combination of cost and utility keeps the currently existing 3D printer as a novelty item for the consumer market.

Rival manufacturer Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) advertises a more capable 3D printer for small groups and professionals starting at $9,900. For this increase in cost, buyers can experience much more of the currently available 3D printing technology. Of course, Mojo, as Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) calls this printer, is not priced for the mass consumer market but it brings us to the next point about 3D printing technology. While the democratization of manufacturing and the ability for consumers to make all their heart’s desires at home is a noble goal, the current position of 3D printing is within prototyping labs at companies and universities.