The technological revolution may never end but it does pause from time to time. If investors are expecting the kind of returns that Apple achieved from 2007-2012, they are probably going to have to look elsewhere as smartphones and tablets are nearly commoditized. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) should provide more successful products but that does not mean they will have an impact to the degree the iPhone and Android had on the lives of consumers and the economy.
As when chips and desktops became commoditized after the tech bubble of the 90s, it may take a quantum leap in technology to ignite the present economy and market. The inconspicuously titled "3-D Printing" industry shows the potential to provide that leap forward. Describing these revolutionary devices as "printers" minimizes their significance. "Printers" print ink on materials for reading or viewing. What comes out of these devices are not pamphlets, books or photos.
3-D printing, also called Additive or Rapid Manufacturing is defined by Wikipedia as a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is also considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).
Some analysts contend that it may take a while before 3-D printing will replace modern manufacturing. That's a reasonable supposition but it doesn't need to "replace" modern manufacturing to experience tremendous growth. This caution discounts the entrepreneurial and creative spirit. Entrepreneurs have a propensity to develop new ideas for the utilization of new technology that critics and analysts rarely envision.
(No more having to shove a ruler down that old primitive cast when your broken arm itches)
A catalyst to new markets
When Apple's iPhone came out in 2007, it launched a new corollary industry that we affectionately call "apps". Millions of entrepreneurs arose around the globe creating new applications. Some apps entertain us and others make daily tasks easier, convenient and more efficient.
I've heard investors ruminate upon the wealth they could have acquired had they invested in Apple in 2007 when iPhone was launched. 3-D manufacturing may well be a greater opportunity. The iPhone created global opportunities for millions of entrepreneurs to invent and easily get their apps to market. It became a "virtuous cycle". As those millions of new apps were made for the iPhone, it in turn made the iPhone all the more desirable to consumers. In a similar way to what the iPhone accomplished, 3-D manufacturing is beginning to launch many innovative products and companies.
It is the Jetson-esque technology that science-fiction has long predicted.
Early in Internet history, one of the major problems I had with Internet retailers like Amazon.com was that (in my opinion) they were little more than glorified catalogs. I shorted Amazon back in 2002 for that reason. On November 21, 2002 I posted a blog about Amazon.com titled www.HYPE.com in which I wrote:
"It's only a matter of months before the great revenue growth no longer satiates the poor speculators and people start to realize that revenue growth is "a dime a dozen".
People will suddenly become enlightened to the fact that no matter what AMZN does, the product has to somehow get to the customers and UNTIL AMZN gets a patent on teleportation, they have nothing new. Sears and J.C. Penney have collectively been in the mail order business for hundreds of combined years. There is a REASON why they are brick and mortar stores. U.S. Mail, FedEx and UPS have been in existence for quite some time, if it were more profitable to go that route, Wal-Mart, Target and the like would close down all of their stores and do the same..."
I was dead-wrong on the Amazon call but the point is that "teleportation", which I emboldened in the AMZN post, for many products is here. This technology comes pretty close to the actual definition (linked). Not all products will be conducive to this technology but plenty are and millions more will be when entrepreneurs tap into this opportunity just like with apps. It is not difficult to see millions of entrepreneurs and companies selling their products digitally on websites like that of Amazon and having them download to their manufacturing devices in their homes. Subsequently, this could eventually impact UPS and FedEx in a way similar to the impact e-mail had on the United States Postal Service.
As with many revolutionary pieces of technology, they are not immediately adopted by the masses; however, they are being sold at retail stores now and The UPS Store has recently begun offering 3-D printing services in-store. Such services may help fill the gap as the equipment gradually comes down in price and the technology improves.
There are several major players within this industry and consolidation is naturally taking place. To name a few leaders they are 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS), ExOne Co. (NASDAQ:XONE).
The company in this sector that I am long as an investor is 3D Systems Corp. 3D Systems is a leader and has been acquiring smaller companies in the space. 3D Systems has been acquiring smaller players within the industry and may look attractive to larger companies seeking to reinvent themselves, especially a company that is well known for their "printers". After it fell asleep during the slow death of the PC (due to growth in usage of mobile devices), I would not be surprised to see HP make major acquisitions in this industry, in effect consolidating the consolidator into the HP fold.
Acquisition speculation aside, nothing can be more obvious than the fact that this industry is a major part of our future. The nature of technology is and always has been to get better year by year and simultaneously become less expensive year by year. This industry is beginning to provide the next quantum leap that many investors are seeking.
Defining it is one thing, seeing it in action is another. Following is a link to some impressive demonstrations at a 2012 Print Show.
Disclosure: I am long DDD. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.