It all started kicking off again last week. The first announcement came from (surprise surprise) 3D Systems (3DS), which announced on 10th April that the company had acquired My Robot Nation. It caused a bit of a stir because many had assumed that the 3DS spending spree was on hold while its numerous other acquisitions were consolidated into the business. Obviously, 3DS are not yet where they want to be, and, after short respite, the acquisitions are go again.
My Robot Nation (MRN) is a relatively new start-up, a consumer facing business, engaging its customers in customised design and supplying the 3D printed results. It's a good fit with 3DS, the new owners of ZPrinting, as the MRN interface produces full colour digital models that are printed on ZPrinters. The whole business, including the founders who were originally from the gaming industry, will be folded into the Cubify division of 3DS to further develop its reach and consumer interaction. Like I said, a nice fit.
This news was followed on Monday by a much more potent, albeit previously forecast, announcement from Stratasys and Objet, in that the two companies are set to merge to form the largest 3D Printing vendor company visible on the sector's landscape. Valued at $1.4 billion, this new company, to be called Stratasys Ltd, has really grabbed people's attention in a number of ways. First and most obvious is the sheer size and scale of the new operation. The share prices of both Stratasys and Objet increased by 25% and 20% respectively within 24 hours, so the response is largely positive. Furthermore, the combination of these two technology bases, complementary for the most part, will also bring together two of the very best R&D departments within the 3D printing sector. I think we will see some very interesting developments from this. A few on the twittersphere had seen this one coming after the news broke a few weeks back that Objet was on the market, myself included. The prediction now is that Stratasys Ltd will need to introduce &/or acquire metal capabilities to firm up its standing in terms of a fully comprehensive 3D printing technology portfolio. My hunch is that we won't have to wait too long for this to happen.
All in all though, I think this is a positive merger, a combination of two of the most operationally successful 3D printer vendors. And it should be noted that my language here is a reflection of the language used by both Stratasys and Objet in their corporate releases about this venture. Both were at pains to convey a mutual coming together, never once was the word acquisition used. I thought that was quite telling in itself!
This particular announcement also set tongues wagging about the consolidation within the 3D printing sector, with bets being taken on how long before only the two largest companies are left standing. Either that, or one of the truly vast electronic/tech companies joining the party properly. If you didn't catch that, it was a reference to HP's half-hearted dalliance with Stratasys to date. Personally, I don't think the 3D printing sector will ever be reduced to just two dominant companies. I certainly hope not anyway.
And then on Tuesday came a further announcement from 3D Systems, which on that day, acquired Paramount Industries. Headed up by Jim Williams, Paramount is renowned for its use of 3D printing technologies for additive manufacturing applications, most notably in the aerospace and medical industries. Indeed Jim is a veteran user of additive tech, and has been working in this field since the origins of rapid prototyping way back when. Offering complete design to manufacturing services, Paramount will fit right into the 3D Systems corporation, alongside Quickparts & 3Dproparts, with specific emphasis on manufacturing capabilities. It is another nice fit, but I can't help but wonder how many more companies can and will be accommodated under the 3DS umbrella?
As things continue to change, and they will, as the consolidation takes a shape of its own and awareness increases apace, I should just mention that I had my own epiphany (finally) on the terminology around this industry. I was mid debate with a couple of people (Al Dean, Kevin Quigley and Jim Woodcock) about how 3D printing is different to additive manufacturing, and should be defined so. Al, who is never one to pull his punches, argued that they are all 3D Printers, "bang, done!" I was arguing that a "3D printer" is not the same as an "additive manufacturing" machine. I used the analogy that a Vauxhall Corsa is not the same as an Aston Martin. Kevin then commented, I think in agreement with me, that similarly an £800 CNC machine is not the same as a £500k CNC machine. Which is when it hit me — fully, completely and overwhelmingly. A Corsa is NOT the same as an Aston Martin, but they ARE both cars. An £800 CNC machine is NOT the same as a £500k CNC machine, but they ARE both CNC machines. A Makerbot is NOT the same as an EOS P700 but they ARE both 3D printers. The differences between 3D printers comes from the capabilities offered, the applications they serve and the users that employ them. Therefore, context is vital, but responsibility for this must fall to the marketing & branding by the machine vendors as well as commentators and journalists.
It really is that simple. And that is exactly what this industry needs — simplicity with context.