Keep 3-D Printing Companies in Your Crosshairs

OK, maybe I was wrong after all. Maybe gunmakers Smith & Wesson Holding  and Sturm, Ruger  should start to worry.

After the debut of the first all-plastic 3-D-printed gun, I said there were a lot of limitations that meant gunmakers didn't have to worry about mass manufacturing that would threaten their profits. The plastic gun could only withstand the stresses of firing a single shot, and it needed an expensive, high-end printer to create it.

With the government quickly shutting down Defense Distributed's spec-distribution website, and with printer maker Stratasys  repossessing the first printer the company leased (the plastic-gun maker subsequently used a second-hand model to print the gun), the pace of technology's advance in the 3-D space is moving much faster than anticipated.

Now comes a 3-D-printed gun that can be printed on a consumer-grade printer, can fire multiple rounds -- and can be made for just $25!

The so-called "Lulz Liberator," named after both Defense Distributed's breakthrough weapon and the desktop printer it was printed on -- a $1,725 Lulzbot A0-101 -- took just two days to make, according to Forbes, and used just $25 worth of consumer plastic.

Although the process hasn't been perfected yet and the latest iteration has a few more metal parts than the original Liberator did, it's clear the toothpaste is out of the tube and this is just the opening salvo in a battle between a government that wants to contain access to guns and libertarians who want information to be free.

So it's only natural that this "war" also has its own special 3-D-printed ammunition. A separate engineer has achieved success in printing and firing two plastic shotgun slugs because, as he told Wired magazine, "a real gun shooting plastic bullets is more fun than a plastic gun shooting real bullets." But how long before the two concepts are melded and we have plastic guns shooting plastic ammo?

Two weeks ago I would have thought it would be years before we saw such an event. At the pace the 3-D industry is moving at today, it could be just a matter of days.

And that's where the problem for Smith & Wesson and Ruger could arise. The demand for guns is huge. As has been well documented, the massive number of background checks by the FBI is at unprecedented levels, which, as I pointed out last time, has surpassed in the first four months of 2013 all of the background checks completed in 2004 . With gunmakers reporting a huge growth in backlog, it's only a matter of time before a proliferation of plastic weaponry begins to soak up part of that excess demand -- demand that is also creating ammo shortages.

Coupled with the Department of Homeland Security's submitting numerous purchase orders for billions of rounds , there's a dearth of ammo in the marketplace. Major ammo makers such as ATK, Hornaday, and Winchester have stated that they have shifts working around the clock, seven days a week, trying to keep up with demand but are simply unable to do so. So perhaps plastic ammo, like plastic guns, could be the solution to the problem.

I still see the profits of Smith & Wesson and Ruger remaining intact, but the industry innovations under way do give me pause at the ability of Stratasys and 3D Systems  to maintain their leadership in the face of low-cost, open-source alternatives.

They've been some of the prime movers driving the industry forward, and also some of its biggest beneficiaries. Stratasys' stock is up 80% year over year, while 3D Systems is 170% higher, but with both companies trading north of 30 times earnings estimates, they may see their returns miss the target.

Because 3-D printing is still in its infancy, it may be you can still successfully invest in either Stratasys or 3D Systems and still shoot out the lights.

3D Systems is at the leading edge of a disruptive technological revolution, with the broadest portfolio of 3-D printers in the industry. However, despite years of earnings growth, 3D Systems' share price has risen even faster, and today the company sports a dizzying valuation. To help investors decide whether the future of additive manufacturing is bright enough to justify the lofty price tag on the company's shares, The Motley Fool has compiled a premium research report on whether 3D Systems is a buy right now. In our report, we take a close look at 3D Systems' opportunities, risks, and critical factors for growth. You'll also find reasons to buy or sell the stock today. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys; owns shares of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Sturm, Ruger; and has options on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.

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