3D Printing: A Sound Investment?

Some stock analyst believe that 3D printing will “fundamentally change the way we make things.” Already, the technology has upended the prosthetics market. Coders, doctors, and fathers can now make a prosthetic for $50. A usual prosthetic can cost upwards of $2500. This extraordinary reduction in cost makes 3D printing highly competitive. Not only are the prosthetics cheaper, they are individually customized in style, and replacement costs are next to zero. talonhand1

This remarkable technology has caught the eye of crowd funding efforts. Enabling the Future has raised millions to 3D print prosthetics for war stricken countries. Marvel Comics has sponsored Enable the Future because kids all over the world want their prosthetics to be in the likeness of Marvel Super Heroes. The value 3D printing has added to the world is remarkable. However, should we invest in this technology as a whole?


Most technology analyst blogs want everyone to invest heavily in 3D printing. They entice you with feel good investments as the profits mostly benefit small communities and not large corporations. They promise mind-blowing innovations such as “3D cars” and “3D clothing.” Yet, many of these blogs are remiss in letting potential investors know about the struggles 3D printing has faced and continues to face.

There are no 3D printed orthotics. For all the innovation and design in prosthetics, coders, doctors, and fathers cannot make a sturdy orthotic. This is because the materials used in 3D printing are plastic. Although this plastic is easily malleable, it is not strong enough to support the weight of a child. 3D printing is limited by its materials, and may have to dramatically increase costs to 3D print sturdier, higher quality, goods. Unfortunately, the world will have to wait to see the first 3D printed and usable car.

If a technology is going to “fundamentally change the way we make things,” it must be more than a one trick pony. The technology must be able to change and lower the costs for a plethora of goods. 3D printing has the potential, but we are years away from a 3D printing revolution. New technologies are new and exciting, but you have to ask yourself, what can this technology feasibly accomplish, before investing.

The Street: 3D Printing

Enabling the Future: Enabling Chile with Spiderman Style

Enabling the Future: Prosthetists Meet 3D Printers

11 thoughts on “3D Printing: A Sound Investment?

  1. This is an interesting take on both the 3D printing and prosthetic industries. I have recently done a bit of research into the prosthetic industry, and to be honest, the work that some scientists are producing is remarkable. The company BionX is a Cambridge-based company that is bringing the first fully propulsion driven robotic ankle to mass-market. The ankle has had great results for veterans and all the other patients who are able to afford it, but what you touch on is exactly what is stopping the industry: price. Many of these prosthetics are expensive. The price tag on BionX’s robotic ankle is around $70,000. Innovation will be crucial to making this industry successful from both a medical and investment standpoint. I do not see 3D printing being able to drastically disrupt these products price-point right now, but hopefully in the near future we will be able to see state-of-the-art prosthetics available to everyone who needs them.


    • Joe makes a good point here. While the introduction of 3D printed prosthetics is new and exciting, the applicability of such a product is questionable (at least at this moment). Modern prosthetics such as the robotic ankle mentioned above incorporate a wide variety of mechanical and content based advantages that are too complicated for 3D printing to achieve as it is now. The use of 3D printing is totally dependent on the quality of material used. If we can’t even produce an orthotic strong enough to support a child, how much further away are we from being able to produce a 3D printed wheel axel that can support the wait of an entire car? Proponents of 3D printing should focus on the development of a stronger, more versatile material before moving forward.

  2. My big question with 3D printing, as touched on a little above, involves the feasibility of the plastic inputs in creating actual products for consumption. I wonder then, is it best suited as a research and development tool for product development, where the products actual inputs are different from the plastic inputs of the model printer? Would something like this even make economic sense? I know so far 3D printers have been useful things for students…

    Most significantly, I would like to point out how the 3D printer closely parallels our technological development model from class. I remember a few years ago when I first heard of the concept that it was extremely primitive. It still seems the same way, so it would be proper to place the 3D printer in the phase where the invention exists but product development has yet to create a completely usable technology that many firms have incentives to adopt. I, like Jake, wonder how long it will take until the product becomes feasible?

  3. I’ve seen 3D printing in action, making dies for producing prototypes of injection-molded parts. The company where I saw this has been using variations for 20 years. More generally, additive manufacturing has been around for a long while, one of the PACE Award companies, The POM Group, was a finalist in 2001 (and later an award winner).

    So this is a good example of new technologies: from a societal standpoint it’s a large bundle of innovations, physical and organizational, that occurs over decades. The first commercial “xerox” machine was 1949, the first plain paper copier was 1963, and it was only thereafter that businesses could slowly rethink how they did things. Carbon paper and rival duplicating processes (mimeograph, ditto) were still omnipresent in 1970. If you were a student doing research for a term paper in the early 1980s, you were still using notecards, copying even a page took time and money, and personal computers weren’t practical for that: expensive, slow, bulky. These “new” copying technologies did change how businesses did things by the 1990s – 50 years after the first commercial xerox product.

    More in class, and after seeing other comments. What does this sort of technology time frame mean for investors? Where does the money lie over the course of a technology rollout? There are lots of issues, raised above in the post and in comments. Add more queries in your comments!!

    • I agree that many questions (even if they are not intended to have tangible answers) should be asked regarding new technologies and 3D printers in general. A common example of a flop in adaption with new technologies is Kodak and their unwillingness to convert to digital camera production. This would be the cause of their downfall, and I believe that this has served as a lesson for many firms in similar situations. Today there is more confidence in affordable technological advances and firms are more willing to make these changes. However, it seems that 3D printers have a lot more at stake in certain sectors than the risks of losing/gaining profit margins. Now that printers are creating transportation vehicles and even artificial body parts/organs there is much more liability in their functionality. Will the confidence of investors and firms be the best move for 3D printers, or is some hesitation needed for sectors with this much risk in its products?

  4. Even though there are limitations to 3D printing (as discussed above) I think that it’s a safe bet that 3D printers will be able to do far more than they currently can in the very near future. It only took around 130 years to go from the first telephone to the first iPhone. During that time, we’ve seen the pace at which new technologies are invented accelerate as inventors build off of previous ideas. I think we can expect this trend to continue, and that we will see 3D printing impact a wide array of fields. Already, 3D printing has begun to effect car production, national defense, medicine, and airplane production. It will be interesting to see how 3D printers advance and evolve over the next twenty years.



  5. I still see the materials used in 3D printing as the biggest issue where most innovation is concerned. The largest complaint I found when researching peoples’ views on 3D printing is the durability of the items. I would believe that the reason they were able to produce a prosthetic at such a low cost is because it was made of plastic. Therefore I don’t really think that it is fair to compare prosthetics produced using 3D printing to those which are proven to be durable and have allowed people a great range of mobility. While I see the potential for 3D printing in the medical sphere, I don’t think it will be serve as a form of competition until they learn a price efficient way to print objects using more sustainable materials.

    • I agree with Kelly in that competition is a far off idea at this point. But I do take issue with the notion that no one ought to invest in 3D printed prosthetics simply because they can only help people who have lost an arm and not a leg. Is it fair to tell a child without an arm who could benefit greatly from a 3D printed prosthetic that he can’t have one because there is another young boy without a leg? I think that even “small” innovations in prosthetics are worthy of investment, at least until a sturdier means of 3D printed orthotics is invented.

  6. I recently saw a story involving a young man who used a 3D printer to create his own set of braces. He was able to use an advanced software to build the braces by taking molds of his teeth with molding clay. He used a technique similar to what Invisalign does, but instead of it costing thousands of dollars he was able to create them for around $60. It will be interesting to see if this becomes more popular and if it can take substantial market share from a company like Invisalign. While the article below, highlights a lot of the problems with this process and how complicated it was, it’s important to note how disruptive this story could be to the dental industry.I could also imagine that Invisalign might/does invest in 3D printing technology in order to improve their process and keep business coming in their door.


  7. Recently fine glass is able to be manufactured through 3D printing. A group of researchers at MIT have created a machine that prints molten glass through a nozzle. The machine is able to print soda lime glass, a family of glasses used in everything from glasses to windows. I think this is a major breakthrough as it reduces shipping and handling costs which are usually higher for glass products. Prosthetic eyes are made of a certain type of glass. I have not seen news about using 3D printing to produce ocular prosthesis, but I think it is foreseeable in the future as soon as the glass printing technology improves.

  8. The 3-D printing industry is certainly a hot topic right now and the lack of regulations allows some headline-worthy inventions that people create at home. As we see now, there are crowdfunding projects blooming from the grassroots level, but most of those are fairly small scale. I wonder how government regulations will affect the use of 3D printing as large manufactures start using the technology. For one, the Supreme Court had a heated debate on whether a person could upload manuals to 3-d print a handgun. I think eventually the technology will not be limited to plastic, as some previous comments mentioned, but how willl that reshape the manufacturing industry at large?

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