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3D Printing Must Create Its Next Big Wave

We've already established that 3D printing's future lies not in plastic noodle makers and hamburger printers. The first wave offered excitement about the concept with wild ideas abound cresting the waves. There's nothing wrong with this. But the next wave will demand the beef. Where are the investor money and the profits for 3D printing?

I see personalized production as the wind beneath the waves. Medical application is an obvious candidate. Are printed dentures and kidneys really that far off? Certain types of consumer products such as eyeglasses and frames, or contacts and other protective gear that would suit one person but are adaptable from the greater technology could spur high tech uses.

Prototyping and hobbies are definitely a market. Those applications are important to generating interest, awareness and excitement. But these niche markets are too small to matter in the financial sense.

Talk of ending traditional manufacturing should have ended with 3D printing's first phase. Except for high-end components that are impossible or very difficult to manufacture by traditional means -- for instance high-end airplanes and parts -- mass manufacturing is here to stay. 3D printing will be a significant contributor to U.S. economy, but it will not revive our manufacturing industry.

All current 3D printing players (Stratasys, 3D Systems (DDD), ExOne (XONE), Voxeljet (VJET), to name a few) are actively into personalized production, of course. Hopefully there will be some bigger players coming into this space, via M&A.

Organovo (ONVO) is particularly intriguing because of its focus on medical and biological printing. On the software side, e.g., Autodesk (ADSK) will also experience significant changes and development.

The fledgling 3D printing industry just experienced its first acceptance and hype. It may take a while to consolidate, regroup and refocus before taking off on solid footing. Many of the stocks here have seen wild swings and will probably continue doing so. Some names will no doubt disappear over time, either through merger or bankruptcy. But long-term investors will be well served by patiently accumulating a position in this field. 3D printing is not a technology you should wait 15 more years to consider for your portfolio.

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At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned. 
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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