The 3-D Printing Race Is On

I just bought a bracelet for my wife.

Buying her jewelry has always been a risky enterprise. Half the time she likes it. The other half she wonders what planet I came from.

But I knew she’d like this present. Because it’s also a health and sleep tracker.

The next time I want to gift her with a wearable or some kind of connected device?

I may not buy it. Instead, I’ll make it.

The wherewithal to do this isn’t quite here yet. But it’s well on its way.

And we have 3-D printing to thank. The industry is about to leap into the wearables world in a big way. As usual, startups are at the center of the action.

From Prototypes to Usable Parts

Confession time. I’m a 3-D printing skeptic. Have been for some time.

This is what I said back in 2013

3-D printing has a long way to go. The plastic used doesn’t allow for surface details like creases and lines. And printed parts are relatively fragile. So forget about frame rails, floor pans and other components that need to be crash-absorbent. A printed auto remains a pipe dream.

3-D printing has come a long way since I said that. Now you can make parts and products out of not only plastic, but also metals, precious metals, ceramics and stainless steel.

Forget a printed car. I was right about that. That’s 10-15 years away.

But huge advances have been made.

Consider that 3-D printer manufacturing company Stratasys supplies more than 1,000 3-D-printed parts for the new Airbus jet.

Its parts are also going on NASA’s satellites.

“If you wanted to print a full airplane wing, you could theoretically do it,” says Jim Bartel, a senior vice president for Stratasys Direct Manufacturing.

Aluminum manufacturing giant Alcoa is also on board.

It’s spending $60 million to build a manufacturing center that specializes in advanced 3-D printing for aerospace and beyond.

Finally… 3-D printing is coming out of rapid prototyping and moving into the assembly line for end-use production.

Using metals is the key.

But this technology is here already. Even the mainstream press is talking about it.

For early investors, that means we need to focus not on the current wave of 3-D printing technology, but on the next wave.

It will be bigger and, I believe, more impactful.

Because the next wave will be “printing” connected devices.

How to Make a Drone in Your Kitchen

Possible or not? Here’s what Duncan Stewart of consulting firm Deloitte Canada says…

“In every kind of way 3-D printers could’ve gotten better in the last three years, they have. But they still can’t make silicon chips, and they probably never will be able to.” [My emphasis.]

That statement was made back in mid-2013.

Stewart assumed what everybody else did at the time. It was impossible to find material that could be extruded. Could handle pressure and heat. And had sufficient conductivity.

Boy, was he wrong.

Mike Toutonghi, the CEO/founder of Functionalize, says his company makes a filament conductive enough for circuits and “a thousand times more conductive than any 3-D filament you can currently buy.”

Toutonghi says he has printed a flashlight and needed to add only a bulb and batteries to make it work.

He says his technology will be able to print most of the parts for a smartphone, drone or customized wearable. Those are big claims.

If he’s right, his company could be one of the breakout startups in this space.

He’s building a lab right now to put his claims to the test. You can bet that I’ll be following the company’s progress.

The Race Is On

Other startups are lining up behind Functionalize.

There’s Voltera. It makes a low-cost circuit board printer using silver nanoparticle ink.

It’s Voltera’s first version – limited to prototypes and small batches for developers.

Another startup, Squink, also uses conductive ink to make circuit boards at home “for the cost of a cup of coffee.” It’s also limited to prototyping.

Their circuit boards don’t end up in real products – at least not yet – as opposed to Carbon3D.

Carbon3D is probably my favorite startup in this space. Its technology is very different. And incredibly cool.

Instead of printing objects layer by layer, it grows them from a pool of resin. It’s much faster than traditional 3-D printing. And it produces high-quality parts.

See this amazing clip of how the technology works (scroll down toward the bottom of the site for the video).

EI_Carbon3D

See how this amazing technology works here.

Carbon3D just raised $100 million in a Series C from Google Ventures and others. Functionalize and Voltera just completed their initial fundraising rounds.

3-D printing technology is just beginning to come into its own. Believe me, more interesting companies are on their way.

I’ll be on the lookout for the best of them. And I’ll be sure to let you know when I’ve found some.

Invest early and well,

Andrew Gordon
Founder, Early Investing

Note for Startup Investor Subscribers: Don’t forget to tune in this Thursday, October 8, at 12 p.m. Eastern Time for a special conference call with Phil Nadel of Barbara Corcoran Venture Partners. See the email we sent yesterday for all the details. Don’t miss out on the chance to hear from one of the best startup “pickers” I know!