Is Microsoft the Missing Link in the 3-D Printing Revolution?

Is Microsoft the Missing Link in the 3-D Printing Revolution?

Microsoft made the maker community jump for joy when it announced that the upcoming version of Windows 8.1 due out later this year will feature out-of-the-box 3-D printing support. For the Windows 8.1 end user, setting up a 3-D printer should be a similar experience to setting up a plug-and-play 2-D printer. This certainly will make life easier for a demographic of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, but will it be the spark that ignites a consumer-driven 3-D printing revolution?

High hopes
As you can imagine, 3-D printing companies are pretty pumped about Mr. Softy's vote of confidence. At Microsoft's annual Build Conference, 3D Systems demoed a Surface Tablet sending instructions to its consumer-oriented $1,299 Cube printer. Rajeev Kulkarni, general manager and vice president of 3D Systems' consumer solutions, believes that having support from Windows 8.1 gets 3-D printing closer to mainstream. "It makes it seamless to get 3-D printing in your home," he added.

Betting the farm
Last month, Stratasys made quite the splash when it acquired leading consumer-enthusiast 3-D printing company MakerBot for $403 million in stock up front and, potentially, another $201 million of stock or cash if the company hits performance incentives through the end of 2014. I don't know about you, but $604 million for a company that's only earned $11.5 million in the first quarter seems like a lot of money.

Not to mention, the "personal" 3-D printing industry was only estimated to be worth about $38.2 million in 2012, and experienced a significant decline in growth from the previous four years. From 2008 to 2011, the personal 3-D printer segment experienced an average growth rate of 346% each year, whereas in 2012, it grew by 46.3% from 2011. For the time being, it could indicate that aggregate demand for personal 3-D printers is beginning to wane, given the lack of material advancements beyond plastic at the consumer level.

Keep dreaming
Although the consumer-oriented 3-D printing market gets a lot of media attention, it represented less than 2% of the $2.2 billion 3-D printing industry last year. Additionally, the fact that 70% of 3-D printing is already done on Windows tells me that this move is more about pleasing existing users than it is to attract new users. If 3-D printing is really going to take off with consumers, the range of materials that can be printed needs to be expanded greatly. Until then, the 3-D printing revolution will continue taking place in the industrial world.

Industrial Revolution 3.0
Like it or not, 3-D printing will continue to play a greater role in the manufacturing process. In fact, The Economist has coined 3-D printing as the third industrial revolution. To help investors make better sense of what this could mean for their portfolios, The Motley Fool has published a special free report, laying out three companies to own for the third industrial revolution. For those investors savvy enough to get in on the ground floor, click here to get started.

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Fool contributor Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Microsoft, and Stratasys and has the following options: Short Jan 2014 $36 Calls on 3D Systems and Short Jan 2014 $20 Puts on 3D Systems. 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.

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