Two of the 3D printing industry's largest companies announced a merger today that could help speed up adoption of the technology in new markets.
3D printing and additive manufacturing company Stratsys will acquire desktop 3D printing specialist MakerBot for $403 million in stock.
MakerBot's products are designed to make 3D printing easier for smaller business or consumers with limited technical knowledge. The acquisition will help Stratasys, which has specialized in prototyping and manufacturing for large organizations, expand into emerging markets for 3D printing technology.
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As part of the deal, Stratasys will also acquire MakerBot's properties and partnerships, such as its Thingiverse.com site that hosts downloadable 3D printing designs and is frequented by 3D printing enthusiasts and makers. MakerBot, meanwhile, will continue to sell products under its own name, and will remain under the leadership of its CEO and co-founder Bre Pettis.
Consumer awareness of 3D printing has increased dramatically in 2013, with several high-profile projects and use cases bringing it into the mainstream. NASA last month approved a $125,000 grant to help Systems & Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) develop 3D-printed food. NASA hopes the technology could improve food resources for space travel, while SMRC hopes to ultimately resolve food crises and reduce global warming.
In healthcare, 3D printing has proven to be a key tool for prosthetics. After receiving special permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, doctors in Michigan used a 3D printer to create an artificial splint for an Ohio infant who was born with a malfunctioning airway, according to the Associated Press. Fifteen months later, the boy hadn't reported a single breathing crisis, and doctors began preparing to remove the splint.
Meanwhile, 3D printing has become the center of staunch political debate. Defense Distributed, the Austin, Texas-based group that became known last year for designing 3D-printed parts for assault rifles, prompted state and federal lawmakers after firing the world's first fully 3D-printed handgun in early May. Federal officials confiscated the designs shortly afterward to review their implications on international weapons regulations, while lawmakers in New York have more recently introduced legislation that would ban the use of 3D printing to create firearms.
Both Stratasys and MakerBot were affected by the Defense Distributed controversy. Stratasys leased the group a 3D printer last summer, then took it back in September after learning about its plans. Then, in December, MakerBot booted Defense Distributed's 3D-printed weapons parts designs from its Thingiverse site.
Regardless, the publicity around 3D printing that has arisen as a result is only driving more interest in the technology. Stratasys and MakerBot predict about 80,000 desktop printers will be sold in 2013, roughly twice as many as in 2012.
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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