I'm a product designer and recently have been investing in stocks.
I have little investment experience so therefore want to stick close to what I know.
So about a year ago I bought DDD (thanks, Obama) but now it seems as if the printer manufacturers are already passe.
In my mind, 3d printing has many corollaries to 2d printing back in the 90's. At that time, there were many prophets declaring the end to big publishing houses, we would all self-publish in a utopian democracy. Of course, it wasn't until after 2010 that (digital) self-publishers on Amazon really began to make money.
It seems obvious to me that 3d printers will follow the same trajectory as 2d, although perhaps on a more limited scale. Yes, many independent designers and students will have a printer of their own for making prototypes and education. Prototyping in particular will be a very important application. But it will only be the bigger players (currently, Staples, Shapeways, etc.) that can offer volume and therefore the scale and sales that justify high stock prices.
Like 2d printing, 3d printing will be limited by scale. No matter how you figure it, a 3d printer can only print so fast. In a few years, 3d printers will "smooth out the edges" and produce exceptional parts in a variety of materials. But mass-production, as in 2-d printing, will only be offered by bigger service providers.
Printing is a hardware thing. Some companies currently have the edge in intellectual property rights, but I have the feeling that these advantages will even out over the near future as technology improves. Take, for example, the current 2d printer. Does it really matter if it is HP or Canon or one of the myriad hardware companies? We are simply looking for quality and volume.
So the question is, where to make money?
(I would really like some analysis of 90's printer manufacturers' stocks here!)
My feeling is that money will be made in two areas.
First, 3d software applications that enable 3d printing have been overlooked. Let's think back to 2d printing. When I'm printing something I don't think as much about the printer as I do the software. I won't publish a marketing brochure or e-book using Word. More so for 3d printing. The cost of 3d printing being relatively high (even in the near future) I'm not going to waste my time with some crappy open-source or even proprietary software. At the very least I will take my original model built in a crappy software and refine it in the industry's best. Furthermore the learning curve for 3d software is much higher than publishing software like Word. Check out the CAD forums- highly-specialized users devoted to a specific software.
I have personally tested a number of 3d software, but my money is in Autodesk. Not only does Autodesk have a long history in 3d CAD software, they also currently have the most user-friendly, short learning curve software available on the market. Finally, their stock seems to be at a low point as of late. Not to mention recent Oscar mentions..
Second, 3d printing service providers. These are much like the 2d printing providers that are still around- various brick & mortar publishers as well as online photo-publishers. If an independent designer needs parts made, he/she doesn't really care which company made the printers. We only care about the quality and cost of the parts coming out.
The question is, how will 3d CAD software companies fare in the future? Will extensive pirating take the edge off their profits? How did Adobe stock respond to the rise in home and business 2d self-publishing?
So I'm debating whether or not to invest in Autocad. At the moment I don't see a clear winner for service providers.. Staples gives me bad vibes. And although Shapeways was an innovator, chances are it will be out-competed or bought out by bigger players.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.