“Forget about Facebook — Let’s Make Some REAL Money” (Motley Fool)

Deciphering the 3D printing picks for the Fool's "next Industrial Revolution"

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, March 6, 2012

I don’t necessarily like to gang up on the same publisher two days in a row — but, well, the great legions of Gumshoe readers are asking for it, and we do aim to please.

So just like yesterday, today we’re digging through some Motley Fool foofaraw, an ad they’ve been sending out this week that promises that their next investment idea will be “bigger than the internet” and the “next trillion-dollar industry” and something that will “change everything it touches.”

And you can only waggle words like that in front of your friendly neighborhood Gumshoe for so long before he lunges for the bait. So what are they pitching?

Well, to make a long (really loooong) story short, it’s all about 3D “printing” — you’ve probably seen the plastic prototyping machines and three dimensional laser carving devices (if not, they include a cool video in the ad), and that’s basically the revolutionary idea the Fools are touting. And naturally, they have three companies to tease to us today as they promise great riches from the 3D printing revolution.

The technology has been around for about 30 years, used by industrial designers and generally owned by large companies and universities in the early days, as the cost of the machines and the materials, and the utility of them, made it a questionable endeavor at first. But like all technologies, it has been gradually improved and the costs have come down and the much greater computing power available to all these days has made for whole new worlds of applications for these 3D printing systems, several competing versions of which are available now at prices that most companies would put on their American Express card. In fact, just a few months ago I had a new dental crown made while I watched, with a blank porcelain insert carved in a little computerized shaper that could arguably be called a “printer” to fit the exact dimensions calculated by my dentist’s computer. It was kind of cool, and I didn’t have to wait a week for a centralized lab to mold my new fake tooth.

But I digress — there’s some way for us to get rich here, no? At least, that’s the Fool’s premise. How do they tease out the opportunity? Here’s a taste:

“… just like 2D printing did, 3D printing is exceeding expectations by rapidly becoming both cheaper and better.

“Machines that cost more than $100,000 a decade ago are now selling for $1,299.

“And they can now print with more than 99 different materials. Not just high quality plastics, many of which are completely recyclable (like milk jugs) or biodegradable. But also some of the most durable and useful physical materials we use in the ‘analog’ world, like wood, glass, rubber, steel, and concrete. Some printers can even handle biological materials like human kindney cells. Or composites of more than two materials that create special properties like heat resistance. Some can make three dimensional objects from ordinary printer paper and even chocolate.

“But who would want to print in 3D?

“How about an architect building a model? Or a product designer making a prototype? Or a dentist casting a mold?

“These are some of the professionals who are already gaining a competitive edge by using 3D printing technology….

Sounds pretty impressive, right? But that also sounds like the market where these machines are already being used, maybe revolutionary but not hitting your home just yet. So what’s the vision for the next few years as these machines become popularized and move into the home?

“There is no longer any important difference between a computerized design that exists in “the cloud” and
a real, physical thing.

“If you remember the old Star Trek shows, which take place in the distant future of the 23rd century, a device that could print physical objects from computerized designs was called a “replicator.”

“Incredibly, this science fiction is now fact.

“And here’s how smart 21st century capitalists like you and me can take this real-world replicator straight to the bank….

“If a physical object is a software code, then… there are no longer economies of scale in manufacturing.

“In other words, it won’t make sense any more to pay Chinese factory workers to make 100 million duplicates of the same product. Better to pay American designers to make 10,000 different products specially tailored to individual customers — in the exact size and style they want to buy. Products they can receive in the mail, or print out at Home Depot, FedEx Office, Wal-Mart, or whichever retailers are smart enough to embrace this technology first.

“If a physical object is a software code, then… everyone from an aerospace engineer to an ice sculptor is really a computer programmer creating digital designs.

“And the market for those designs will be just like today’s market for music, movies, and books. You’ll have the iTunes store, Amazon.com, and other legitimate download vendors on one side of the law, and a thousand fugitive ‘pirate bays’ on the other. Your grandchild’s Happy Meal toy will be scanned onto your smart phone at the cash register and it will be finished printing before you get home from the drive-through.

“Finally, if a physical object is a software code, then… the companies that make the best design software and the companies that can offer a comprehensive package of hardware, input materials, and servicing stand to make HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS.”

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OK, so all of us amateur futurists can argue about whether any of this makes sense, and whether forging precise 3d objects is the same as assembling complex machines made of hundreds of objects, but it is at least a feasible future … someday.

So who, then, are these companies that are supposed to make us rich as this technology takes over the world?

In typical fashion, the Foolies give us one … and tease us about two others. The one they tell us about up front is one of the leaders in computer design, Dassault Systeme (DSY in Paris, DASTY on the pink sheets), which sells the SolidWorks software system as well as many other 3D and “virtual” design systems.

“Right now, we’re at the very beginning of the transition from the “garage” stage to the “mass market” stage.

“And that’s the moment when you want to be investing.

“Sure, you could make some money later.

“You could wait until the market is more ‘proven.’ But as we’ve seen, this technology is already scientificall