Not to overlook everything that has gone before, 3D Systems has announced its largest — and most significant — acquisition by far today, namely Z Corporation, arguably the most dominant vendor in the personal 3D printing sector.
My past blog posts that have mentioned 3D Systems have had mixed reactions, in the main supportive but with the occasional blasting, and in one case, a lost project. But hey-ho, that's life. I'm entitled to my opinions and I will defend that principle until I write my last word. However, taking a step back, I have to concede that my posts have been all about the company and strategy, with very little mention of the technologies. 3D Systems was founded on Stereolithography (SLA), indeed the company developed and commercialised this process in 1987. And one of the company's earliest acquisitions was DTM, which brought Selective Laser Sintering within 3D System's remit. These two technologies are two of the four earliest additive manufacturing processes, the others being Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) developed, commercialised and still belonging to Stratasys; and Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), which was developed by Helisys and died a death in the 90's until resurrected in a different form by MCor a few of years back.
So, why the history lesson? Well, as the shock waves reverberated across the 3D printing industry — and I confess my chin hit my chest at precisely 3.15 GMT when I read the original post from ZCorp and subsequently the press releases from both ZCorp & 3D Systems, and it stayed there as I tried to investigate a little further — a number of interesting theories emerged. It should be noted that ZCorp was unable to comment beyond the information in the press release. By far the most striking theory, for me anyway, came from Randall Newton (@gfxspeakRSN) who said, and I quote "3D Systems has to grow or die. Stratasys/HP is going to be a monster. That's IMHO" I wasn't the only one to see the truth in that opinion, and the more I thought about it, the more I could see how this has been developing for years.
Historically, it has been developing since the very beginning. 3D Systems and Stratasys have always been the two big names in Rapid Prototyping and subsequently Additive Manufacturing and now 3D printing, with superior processes (along with DTM until it was acquired, and EOS still). They have always been in competition, and now it seems like this competition is heating up more than ever before. However, since the advent of the 3D printing synonym, which has been so positive for the whole industry and mainstream awareness, these two companies have implemented very different strategies. Stratasys, after the initial HP announcement, which, incidentally, created a similar furore as was seen today, has quietly gone about its business, but it has occurred to me from time to time that with the power of HP behind it there has to be something serious bubbling beneath the surface. Randall's comment today brought that to the fore once again. 3D Systems on the other hand has gone for broke on the media front line, with a constant stream of acquisitions. It seems, however, that these two companies will continue to compete on a global and greatly increased scale. Personally I think this is great news. There are some concerned voices, G. Sachs on the RP-ML is an example, that worry that this deal is "really consolidating the market into 2-3 players."
I don't see it this way — well not yet anyway — it may get to that if the acquisitions continue. There is still a wide range of additive processes from independent vendors available on the market and keeping the competition alive. At the top end of the market there are the metal processes — DMLS (EOS), EBM (Arcam), LENS (Optomec), Laser Cusing (Concept Laser), and SLM (Renishaw, previously MTT) — these certainly have had a huge impact on additive manufacturing applications and will remain competitive. I am very optimistic to see what Renishaw does with SLM in particular! Also, at the low end of the market there are a host of vendors — some strong, some not so much and some too new to tell. But enough of them to keep the competition alive. In the mid range also there are still some very strong players — Objet, Envisiontec, Fcubic & Mcor.
So what does Z Corporation bring to the 3D Systems Corporation that it didn't have before. Well, Z Corp's greatest assets in terms of its 3D printing technology are the full colour capabilities in producing models and the price/performance ratio. In addition, this acquisition brings a whole scanning/digitising brand with it in the form of the Zscanners; not to mention Contex Group (the holding company that is selling Z Corporation) is also selling VIDAR Systems Corporation to 3DS. Vidar is an optical imaging technology company that specialises in dental and medical imaging, which will allow 3D Systems to drill down much deeper into these vertical markets and offer an appealing & comprehensive range of products & services.
Furthermore, beyond the technology itself, Z Corporation is, I would say, the best known 3D printing brand (remember the wrench video), with excellent reseller channels, good turnover and a very impressive client list — all of which will further strengthen 3D System's balance sheet. The cash outlay is steep, $137 million, but initial reports suggest that the 2010 Zcorp revenue will be immediately credited to 3D Systems once the deal is completed.
Questions are being asked about branding and identity, and Deelip Menezes, himself a recent acquisition of 3DS, has indicated that ZCorp will probably continue to function as it does now, just under the 3D Systems banner, with little more than a logo change. Other recent acquisitions would back this up — Bits from Bytes (BfB) and Freedom of Creation (FoC) are both doing this.
My one serious concern (or maybe I should be a tad more optimistic) is that ZCorporation is a company with an excellent marketing strategy and engaging personnel. I'm not going to go over old ground here, but I really really hope that doesn't change. In fact, I would be delighted, truly happy, to see 3D Systems utilise this particular asset across the whole corporation!