New 3D printing firm takes shape with Objet-Stratasys merger

Two of the bigger 3D-printing manufacturers plan to merge into a single entity with a strong position against competitors big and small.

You'll be forgiven if you haven't previously heard of Stratasys Inc or Objet Ltd. Stratasys, formerly a Nasdaq-traded company from Eden Prairie, Minn., has a multi-pronged business selling industrial-quality 3D printers and on-demand object printing services. Objet, of Rehovot, Israel, is a 3D printer manufacturer notable for its "polyjet matrix" technology, which can print an object using multiple different materials.

Here's why you might care that the two companies announced their intention to merge: the new company, Stratasys, Ltd. could become a third major competitor in the consumer 3D printing market.

Stratasys Ltd.

If you've heard of any 3D printing manufacturer, chances are it's MakerBot. The first 3D-printer manufacturer to bring the concept out of high-priced prototyping obscurity, MakerBot is on its third generation of sub-$2,000 printers. Its Replicator 3D printer is the first affordable device to support two-color object printing.

You can argue that because its design is based on the open-source RepRap project, MakerBot might lack defendable core technology. But MakerBot and its charismatic CEO Bre Pettis have become the de facto face of the 3D printing industry, and have stoked impressive customer enthusiasm through its Thingiverse site that hosts usermade plans for printable 3D objects, all available for free download.

The second player, 3D Systems, also made news at this year's CES when it announced its Cube 3D printer and a Cubify online service. 3D Systems has said that its Cube 3D printer will come out in the first half of this year, and that it will retail for $1,299, making it one of the most affordable pre-assembled printers available. For its 3D plan hosting service, 3D Systems is taking the commercial route, allowing designers to sell their printable object designs to 3D printer owners.

Cubify will also let you order printed objects from 3D Systems directly. As the largest commercial 3D printer manufacturer, 3D Systems can do that. One of the oldest 3D printing firms, 3D Systems has perhaps the broadest scope in the industry, selling million dollar laser-sintering machines that print medical grade objects from powdered titanium, as well as the hobbyist kits from the same RepRap roots as MakerBot. 3D Systems and it gets credit for a number of key innovations, among them the popular STL file format, the industry standard for object design files.

3D Systems has also been on an acquisition spree the last few years. The company has scooped up other commercial 3D printer vendors, acquiring rival Z Corp. this past January. It has also inhaled hobbyist companies like BitsFromBytes, and synergistic consumer-oriented companies, like My Robot Nation, "a leading consumer technology platform that provides intuitive, game-like content creation for 3D printing. "

It's still unclear whether 3D Systems really understands the consumer technology market, or if consumers en masse are as interested in the Cube as hobbyists have become in MakerBot. Regardless, 3D Systems at least has the expertise and technological capability to compete seriously, and it is willing to throw its muscle around in order to get an edge.

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Where might newly formed Stratasys, Ltd. fit in? Neither originating firm is as large as 3D Systems, but both Stratasys Inc. and Objet Ltd. saw revenue increases over 30 percent for 2011, suggesting both companies are healthy. Read into the merger announcement and you'll find only the faintest suggestion of a forthcoming play in the consumer market, with the line "the combined company's competitive position is expected to be improved by a scaled organization with a more comprehensive reach."

3D Systems hasn't really established its own name among consumer 3D printers, so it's not clear that MakerBot really has any large competition yet. If Stratasys Ltd. does enter the consumer market, and if 3D Systems does make a credible entry, consumers will get to chose from at least three major technology originators. If that happens, here's hoping that means more competition-induced innovation, and less court-bound patent squabbling.