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Image from MakerBot Industries, LLC, a privately held producer of consumer-oriented 3-D printers (based in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

When I want to really feel young, I look at the 3-D printing space. There's a 1976 feel to the industry.

  • Shapeways just got New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg out to cut a ribbon on its 25,000-square-foot “factory of the future,” hoping to create five million new products a year.
  • A series of 3-D Print Shows now offer an early Comdex gleam against the MakerFaire’s West Coast Computer Faire vibe.

The dead hair follicles on the top of my head tingle just thinking about it. But can you make money at it? Is there an Apple hiding in this stack of start-ups or will these companies, like Digital Equipment, Cromemco and Kaypro before them, be shooting stars that die out?

You might be tempted to grab some Hewlett-Packard shares, recalling a DesignJet 3-D printer you saw somewhere, once upon a time. This would be a mistake. That printer was a private-labelled Stratasys device, and HP ended its relationship with Stratasys this past summer.

Stratasys may turn out to be the HP of this space. Its shares are up 119 per cent this year alone. Sales are up 50 per cent since 2009, they could top $200-million for the full year, and they're profitable. Among their products are a line of Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM printers, in which a nozzle melts plastic wire and deposits it based on a computer aided design, or CAD model input.

FDM is just one of many types of 3-D printers. Since 3-D printers make objects, the one you choose will depend on the material you're using, the accuracy you require and your budget.

3D Systems has done even better than SSYS – maybe it will be the IBM of this space. Up 182 per cent since January, it had $230-million in sales last year, and could easily do over $300-million this year. The margins are also fatter than those of Stratesys. The company started taking on debt in 2011, but it's less than 25 per cent of assets, still very manageable.

There are 3-D printers using a variety of materials, and a variety of technologies, divided into personal, professional and production lines, roughly equivalent to desktops, servers and mainframes from back in the day. The biggest make objects up to 20 inches by 15 inches by 9 inches in size, and can be used to make wax casts, dental implants, and medical devices, among other things.

The oldest of the big 3-D companies is Autodesk, whose Computer Aided Design or CAD software creates many of the files 3-D printers draw from. At one point this spring it traded at $40, but is now closer to its December 2011 price of $32/share.

That's because, as a long-time software company, Autodesk has a lot of customers beyond printing, and is thus relatively mature. Sales are over $2-billion a year, with almost 15 per cent of that coming to the bottom line in normal years. Last year it bought T-Splines, a maker of 3-D modeling software, to strengthen its digital prototyping offerings.

Two prime 3-D printing plays sell on the pink sheets. Dassault Systems, a French company, is a diversified engineering software firm that created SolidWorks, a major 3-D modeling package. Organovo Holdings of San Diego is mainly focused on the medical niche, which is currently red-hot because nearly all medical parts are custom-made in some way.

The most important point to remember is that these are early days. Students of history will note how many of 1976's PC makers are still vital today – I can count them on the fingers of one finger. (It's Apple.) There will be many twists and turns on the way toward custom manufacturing, one-at-a-time production of products by machines following software, creating millions of clean jobs worth big paychecks.

Heck, the real Apple here may not even be public. That would be MakerBot, a privately held producer of consumer-oriented 3-D printers (based in Brooklyn, N.Y.) under the MakerBot and Replicator names, and producers of Thingiverse, a 3-D design house.

Very cool.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the author had a position in AAPL.

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