3D Printing: The “Disruption” which didn’t really disrupt

It feels like decades ago but actually it is only 4 years ago when 3D printing was supposed to disrupt each and everyone.


Googling around, it is quite easy to find articles like this one in Forbes from October 2013:

We are a few years away from a printed economy – an economy in which 3D printing will have a major role in manufacturing. Up to now, 3D printing has been most useful in creating prototypes. But from the automotive to the electronics and toy industries, 3D printers will increasingly produce critical parts and finished products. What are some industries 3D printing will disrupt? Here’s our list of seven.


Automotive: 3D printing will manufacture vehicle parts and even whole cars. High-end, specialty cars that have relatively small production runs will particularly benefit. Bentley is one company that has already demonstrated the feasibility of using 3D printing for small, complex parts. Motorcyclists and bikers will also be able to order their own customized helmets that are printed to fit their individual head size and structure.


As these examples indicate, 3D printing will transform the way manufacturing is done today. Moreover, it has the potential for helping to meet the needs of people throughout the world. Poor people in the developing world will find that clean drinking water, low-cost energy sources, and other basic human needs will be met at much lower costs through 3D printing. In this sense, it can serve important civic purposes as well as be an engine of economic development.

3D printing will bring a revolution the details of which are only now beginning to emerge.

Or this study from Deloitte from 2012 and many many more. Optimism was great and projected growth rates even stronger. From the Deloitte study:

As the Consumer Electronics Association noted, “Sales of 3D printers will approach $5 billion in 2017, up from $1.7 billion in 2011, as demand expands for everything from consumer applications to markets such as automotive, aerospace, industrial and healthcare.”

Stock prices

Stock prices of 3D printing stocks became “the thing”. This is the stock price of 3D Printing which went up 7 fold from late 2011 to beginning of 2014:


or German company Voxeljet which went public in late 2013 at 13 USD and went up to ~70 USD a share within 3 weeks, valuing the company at more than 1 bn USD with sales of roughly 10 mn USD (and no profits, of course).

Interestingly, this IPO marked more or less the peak of the 3D printing hype.

Voxljet is trading now at 3,50 USD per share, a fraction of the IPO price and 3D Printing shares lost almost 90% from their peak in January 2014.

So what happened ?

Well, disruption just didn’t happen, at least not as quickly as many “experts” back then expected. Here are annual sales and net profit numbers of 3D and Voxeljet:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Sales 159,9 230,4 353,6 513,4 653,7 662,2 633,0
Net Income 19,6 35,4 38,9 44,1 11,6 -655,5 -38,4
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Sales 3,6 5,2 6,8 11,7 17,5 24,1 20,9
Net Income -0,2 0 0,2 -2,7 -4,3 -9,6 -11,3

It is really interesting that the peak of the hype also marked the profit peak for 3D. Plus, the -655 mn loss figure is not a typo. Voxeljet managed at least to double sales but at a current net margin of -50%, this growth did not create a lot of value.

I found this interesting article from end of last year which tries to explain the lack of disruption and the issues of pioneer 3D company MakerBot.

The short story is that the initial growth was fueled by freaks and early adopters, but that they did not succeed in the mass markets mainly because of flaws and general inconvenience to use the products.

Interestingly enough, there were also a lot of very critical articles back then like this one, but of course not many people like negative opinions. I found the one comment on this article quite telling:

Nick, anything you say now is irrelevant to the future. It’s easy to say that they’re overhyped now, but 3D printers will get easier to make, more compact and more affordable as time goes on. You sound like every person that ever talked about a new technology. It always starts out this way, but then grows into something bigger. Think outside the box.

It is funny, but people who predict great things in the future are liked usually much more than the guy who says it will not work that way from his own experience.

Lessons to be learned

In my opinion, this provides a very good lesson that not everything which is marketed as the next great disruption and grows quickly actually becomes one. Plus the issue that going from the initial freaks and early adopters to the mass market is not easy.

Without going through all current hypes, I think that specifically Electric Cars and Autonomous Driving to me look quite similar.

Both are technologies which are not new, are currently hyped massively and grow quickly. For instance not unlike MakerBot, Tesla owners currently are mostly early adopters and freaks which can live well with the many flaws such as limited range etc. It really needs to be seen if the mass market product is really so good that “normal” customers will adopt Electric vehicles as quickly as currently thought.

The same goes for autonomous driving. As far as I know, the experience compared to driving a car yourself is still far from optimal. For instance current system tend to brake without obvious reasons. Many people think that those problems will be easily solved but I am not so sure if and how quickly this will actually happen.

Looking back it seems to be much easier to disrupt in the “Virtual space” like media, music etc. than in the real physical space. But let’s see, maybe we even get flying cars soon ?

For investing, this means that on the one hand you clearly should not follow every hype. On the other hand this also opens potential opportunities. This is what Ray Dalio said:

“To win at stocks or entrepreneurship, you must bet against the consensus and be right.”

So consensus is clearly that traditional car companies are losers and Tesla/Uber etc will kill them relatively shortly. Betting against this looks interesting. But I am not there yet….



  • “Rea”l self driving cars are 30 years away, Says the former guy who ran Google’s efforts:


  • Just a small remark. There are actually a lot more comments on the article you link to.
    There is a “show more comments” button 🙂

  • I agree with the „hyped technologies“ argument. But as always, it is relevant to look at the „customer needs“ or „jobs to be done“. And if the technology actually can fit a need or provide a significant cost benefit than we are talking!
    With 3D printing, a lot of the discussed applications have been easy to decipher as hype: Printing my own stuff at home or in remote locations? Printing spare parts for large volume products? This was not feasible from a technology standpoint as well as from logistics. Can’t beat Amazon Prime in 99.9% of cases.
    At the same time, there have been applications that made sense: E.g. Highly complex parts for turbines made out of titan. They could be made in better quality with 3D printing. The same was true for medical parts. That’s why at that time I bought some Arcam stock which was not cheap either but at least the company was a leader in its field that was profitable with no / very little debt. I am sure you all know that Arcam was bought be GE last year.
    And now? Technology has advanced by the famous „disruptive factor of 10“ and Adidas just opened a factory to mass produce shoes with 3D printing technology: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-adidas-manufacturing/adidas-to-mass-produce-3d-printed-shoe-with-silicon-valley-start-up-idUSKBN1790F6
    So one more step into disruption with 3D but again for a specific „job to be done“ where it provides the benefit!
    So what’s the deal with EVs? As you said, currently it is a nice technology with very limited immediate benefits for the user: No noise, great acceleration, cool image. NO „disruptive 10x factor“ here for sure! Not YET, I mean. It will happen in a few years but only in combination with self-driving cars. Likely to be driven by larger cities that ban anything but self-driving taxis to get cleaner air, remove the parking spots and the traffic jam. As you might know, Oslo has started this year to remove all downtown street parking! And then who would still use his own car if there is almost no place to park it? You might know that Norway is also the country with the largest percentage of EVs worldwide (but of course only because they subsidised them).
    Watch this YouTube video and you will understand my arguments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b3ttqYDwF0
    The last question I cannot answer: Who are the companies in that space that are providing the necessary tools for this first step of the disruption? And are there any publicly traded ones that are not too expensive yet? I owned Mobileye – even though they have been expensive they had a clear multi year advantage and a well running business. In my opinion they sold themselves too cheap to Intel!
    Any ideas from the community about the „hidden champions“ in this area?

    • Good points and thanks for the video.

      I am also in the camp that believes in electric and autonomous vehicles.

      It just makes so much sense from so many points of view:

      Battery life is improving and charging times increases. Samsung already has a battery with a 500km range charged in 20 minutes. Where will this end (if at all)?

      The advantages of autonomous driving are also pretty obvious. If that works well, driving a car on its own will become a dangerous waste of time. And who would bear the efforts and costs of getting a driver license?

      The two combined, clean cities without traffic jams are within reach and politicians will push these models. China and India will push these technologies, and if it is only for health reasons.

      That being said, I absolutely agree with the view that we will have clean cities with autonomous self driving cars and ultimately it won’t make sense for people living in big cities to own a car at all.

      Even if I am right, that does not mean that Tesla will win and all others are about to run out of business.

      In fact, nearly all car makers are working towards that future and Teslas advantage does not seem to be that big.

      Any third party battery provider could beat Tesla and any third party autonomous driving system could beat Tesla and all car manufacturers could just buy the system from them (like running Android on a smartphone or having HTC manufacture it…)

      The bigger problem would probably be, that we need much less cars overall, because the shared system is so much more efficient (having a sufficient number of driverless cars running around all the time, instead of having the average car only being used 5% of the time).

      Overall, I would not buy any car company, but the likely winner of the autonomous driving system. Hard to predict. At least in China, I think that Baidu has good chances (more than 50%).

      • Thanks for the comments. Yes. clean cities with self driving cars sounds like a very nice vision. However if you look at the detailsn how and when to get there it is often more complex. For instance the argument that we will have no traffic jams any more and a lot less cars.

        Two counter examples:

        1) There is currently a huge bike sharing boom in China. Due to the netork effect, many companies try everything to be the biggest player and flood the cities with bicycles. So the Chinese have now more bikes than before not less. Plus, people suddenly start to behave differently like this NYT article shows:

        I would assume that at first of course a lot of companies want to become the dominant players and there is a good chance that at first the numebr of cars suddenly greatly increases instead of a decrease.

        You can see this in public transit in many parts of the world: If people don’t own something, they suddenly start to behave very badly

        2) A second argument that there could be more cars is that self driving cars might replace public transit first. Why walk 15 minutes to the subway (in the rain) when you can just dial a self driving car to show up at your door ? If I just think about my hometown Munich and imagine that maybe 25% of the people in the subway suddely try to use a cheap self driving car, then the dream of empty city roads with happy people in self driving EVs becomes suddenly a lot less realistic.

        The point I wanted to make is that it is easy to have a vision how things are looking and the future. But it is much harder to say when and who will beenefit from this. If you are a futurist TED talker, you don’t have to worry about such details. If you are a (value) investor this is much more important than the ultimate “endgame”.

        • Good points.

          Did not know yet about the shared bike problems in China. However, I am not sure if this is comparable to self driving cars. The shared bike idea relies on having a bike standing around anywhere, so it is not a very efficient solution. Instead, the self driving car or an uber would come to you. Also, people would probably behave more respectful with car worth 30k than with a bike worth 100 (and which are frustrating many people for in part understandable reasons).

          Betting on a potential short-term rise in car sales due to competition trying to become the market leader would, if at all, only pay out in the short term.

          According to the tony seba presentation, we may need only 20% of today’s car fleet in the future if I remember currently. If he is only half right, that long term effect will be a disaster to most car companies unless they come up with new business models.

          Also, as discussed in the presentation you linked today, there may be an opposite short term effect, that may come into play even earlier:

          With EVs on the rise (image, efficiency) and lots of uncertainty regarding Diesel and then potentially Benzin, people may choose to delay new car purchases. Waiting how issues resolve, or waiting until the EV solution becomes “safe” enough. I believe there is a considerable likelihood for this scenario over the next 2-3 years.

          After that, we have the year 2021, and according to both experts from the likes videos, this is when they both expect EVs to take off.

          Over the same time, Uber and others will only get stronger.

          I admit the PE ratios of car companies look compelling and so do the dividend yields. However, they all have to invest like crazy at the moment and it is not sure whether these investments will pay off. Even if they maintain their market share, we may talk about a market that is only a fraction of today’s in 10 years.

      • I don’t think we are going need less cars and would rather refer to “miles driven”. Cars are likely to be used more efficiently and have shorter life spans in terms of time after which they need to be replaced. There should be the same number of cars on the streets as people still need to travel. But less cars idle I guess.
        I assume that the self driving feature and connectivity are much more disruptive than the ev engine. Cars are then able travel faster and much closer to each other. There will less congestions. Which in turn means that roads have much higher capacity which then leads to more vehicles being used at the same time in the cities and thus more miles driven.

        • I suppose the miles driven will rise, not fall or stay constant.
          One example: In many cities the lack of parking lots is a strong argument for not driving by car.
          Imagine a self driving car: After drining to your inner city working place you can tell the car to search itself a parking lot (perhaps 10 km away) and to come back in the evening. You are not losing time so you dont worry.
          But the self driving car is driving longer distances the car would today. And you take the car for a trip were you might prefer public transport or bycicle these days, due to a lack of parking lots.
          Even when driving home: A traffic jam is producing less stress as you can read stuff or do anything, even continue working in your car, so the traffic jam is less stressful and hence less an argument to switch to another means of transport.
          So we may get more innercity trips, longer distances, more traffic jams –> happy new time!

    • btw, Thanks for the Adidas link. This looks indeed like a step forawrd as this new process seems to be a lot quicker than the 3D printers touted a few years ago. Nevertheless is still looks like that they can only produce single material plastic parts so far.

      One more detail: Adidas did not open a factory which does 3D printing, The have opened a “robot factory” which uses the 3D printed soles. That is a small but important difference in my opinion.

      • Thanks for your feedback to the self driving car topic! (And sorry I did not thoroughly state what Adidas is doing).

        Fully agree with the potential hurdles for self driving cars that have been raised. Most of them like behaviour (behaving badly) or getting too lazy to walk are not technical hurdles. These things can be solved with the right business model, supervision. Maybe if you leave the self-driving car dirty a few times you get a bad rating and kicked out by the service provider. Or you have to pay x-times the prize if you get off already after less than 1 km. Therefore these potential hurdles for me would just lead to a delay.

        BTW, I am using car sharing from car2go and drive-now since many years. From time to time there is some garbage in the car but I never had any serious issue.

        The battery question is a good one. Since all major car companies are now shifting at least towards hybrids you can potentially buy any of the large ones like Panasonic. But I did not do the math, also considering that these companies have a lot of other businesses.
        Some experts tell me that Tesla = Panasonic = Laptop style batteries in cars are dangerous since they burn very quickly once catching fire. And that Tesla’s sometimes can catch fire when charging. I did not see any statistics here.
        I would probably invest in these guys if it would be possible: http://www.dw.com/en/going-electric-with-batteries-made-in-austria/av-40150767

  • “So consensus is clearly that traditional car companies are losers […] Betting against this looks interesting. But I am not there yet….”
    This is Alvaro from Spain. Thanks for the post. I have writen to your mail at the begining of the week (Have you seen it??). I sent you a Thesis of Miko.
    One of my best investments in the past was BMW, since middle 2008 to middle 2015. I had my Thesis on BMW in the same format as the thesis I sent you od MIKO.
    If you want it I can send it to your mail. But my conclusion on BMW is that there isn’t enough upside. Not much security margin.

  • “So consensus is clearly that traditional car companies are losers […] Betting against this looks interesting. But I am not there yet….”

    I am already.:-)
    This is the reason I bought Volkswagen the last days, after BMW few months ago (we discussed about car manufacturers these days) and I suppose to follow you with car insurance Admiral in the next weeks.
    In the shadow (or backside) of a hype there are sometimes unpopular and massively undervalued branches and companies, that will come to the light again and look like the real nuggets as soon as the hype shrinks.

  • Great post, thanks MMI!


  • I agree, that EVs and Autonomous Driving will take a LONG time to disrupt anything.
    I know personally many people who are categorically against EVs and many things have to come into play for autonomous driving like regulation, (cyber-) safety, etc.
    But I think that the SUV trend is not sustainable, which brings the fat margin for traditional car makers and I hate how they behave in terms of Dieselgate and to their suppliers. So in my opinion they deserve to be cheap…

    • Working in the industry, I do believe that EVs will become part of the powertrain mix in the mid-term (5-10 years). There is a group of customers with a specific use pattern for which EVs are by far the best option (already today, they just don’t know it yet). That said, I don’t believe any OEM will be a big loser or big winner – that includes Tesla. Autonomous driving on the other hand has disruption potential, as it can destroy the OEMs existing business model (whereas EVs are just cars with some different parts). However, as mmi pointed out in the article (great as always!), AD is currently being hyped like 3D printing some years back. I don’t think there is any money to be made here today for value investors. The actual implementation of the tech will be much slower than currently anticipated, leaving enough time to find opportunities once the hype cools down. But I might be wrong (and in that case, I will need to look for another job).

    • I am not sure that the SUV boom is over. Especially in Emerging Markets they are very popular. BMW is just releasing its new X/ and I think this is targeted towards markets like China or India, where “the music plays” for SUVs these days:


      • You are right. That’s why I called the SUV boom unsustainable. I specifically meant environmental issues.
        And I personally are against them (unless you make a safari) and so I do not invest in it.
        That’s the same reason I did not invest in Facebook. I do not use it personally although I know it’s a great business…

  • In 2015 (3D printing seems since then to have left the yearly Hype Cycle updates),Gartner listed Enterprise 3D Printing at the slope of enlightenment with 2-5 years before reaching plateau of productivity, while consumer 3D printing was listed as entering the trough of disillisionment. http://static1.businessinsider.com/image/55d37c47dd0895e8378b4691-1168-730/screen%20shot%202015-08-18%20at%202.39.51%20pm.png

    Seems like the 2017 update has autonomous vehicles just entering the trough. http://blogs.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/files/2017/08/Emerging-Technology-Hype-Cycle-for-2017_Infographic_R6A.jpg

    Not that this adds anything useful to the discussion, but it’s a nice way to illustrate buzz technologies. 🙂

    Great post!

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