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3D printers have often been seen as a way to produce fast prototypes of products. But machines can now create industrial parts in steel and bronze, construct intricate sand molds for investment casting, and do large-scale manufacturing of plastic objects and parts. And they can do so in increasing quantities. (Exone.com)
3D printers have often been seen as a way to produce fast prototypes of products. But machines can now create industrial parts in steel and bronze, construct intricate sand molds for investment casting, and do large-scale manufacturing of plastic objects and parts. And they can do so in increasing quantities. (Exone.com)

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My favourite growth stocks with enormous potential are those that involve a “disruptive technology,” or have the potential to be disruptive. For example, Apple disrupted the computer and other markets by the time its growth phase ended.

But disruptive technologies aren’t easy to recognize. By definition, they don’t fit into any existing model, so they can seem odd and unlikely. I remember one critic asking, after Apple introduced the iPad, “but what can you really do with it?”

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And some people throw the term around, using it for something trivial, such as a “disruptive” toothbrush technology or a “disruptive” light bulb.

My candidate for a genuinely disruptive technology is the emerging 3-D printing industry. For most people, 3-D printing is just a novelty that will allow home users to create plastic toys or neat-looking iPhone cases. But for manufacturers, the technology has rocketed past the novelty phase into a mature business.

3-D printers have often been seen as a way to produce fast prototypes of products. But machines can now create industrial parts in steel and bronze, construct intricate sand molds for investment casting, and do large-scale manufacturing of plastic objects and parts. And they can do so in increasing quantities.

So why is this disruptive? It’s because traditional manufacturing involves a web of suppliers for parts and a closely monitored supply chain that includes delivery and warehousing. Companies must expend capital to order parts in advance, to have them delivered, and to store enough of them to meet current demand. It’s an art in itself, and has spawned a computer software sub-industry devoted to supply chain management.

But a 3-D printer can short-circuit that entire process. Parts can be manufactured on site exactly when needed, and only as many as needed. The only lag time is the time it takes the printers (or printers) to actually do the work. And the design specifications can be entered directly via computer.

The companies that manufacture 3-D printers are also manufacturers in their own right, producing custom runs of products in various materials. Manufacturing setup and breakdown times and costs are much lower with printers, allowing quick changeovers.

Think of what the Xerox copier did for the paper-publishing world. 3-D printers could do this for many big firms in the manufacturing world.

Two of the big kids on the 3-D printing block right now are Stratasys and 3D Systems. But I have another candidate that I favour. It’s ExOne, a manufacturer of 3D printers that has a global footprint and a unique array of products.

Last year, about two-thirds of ExOne’s revenue came from manufacturing, and just over one-third from printer sales. But in the first quarter, printer sales accounted for nearly 60 per cent of revenue.

It’s still early in the evolution of this big change in the manufacturing industry, but ExOne – despite its small size ($34-million in annual revenue) – could be a leader. The company also offers very specialized laser micro-machining services that command a premium price.

XONE has only been trading since its IPO in April, but it has put together a strong chart with no big pullbacks. If the thought of getting in early on a truly disruptive technology appeals to you, this may be your chance.

Paul Goodwin is the emerging Markets Specialist and Analyst, Cabot Heritage Corporation

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