So It Begins: 3-D Printers Are Coming to a Store Near You

3D Systems sure has had a busy past couple of weeks.

First, shares of the additive manufacturing specialist rose more than 7% after the company reported a solid first quarter, during which revenue grew 31% as printer sales rose 81% from the year-ago period. Gross margin also rose to a record 52.4%, and GAAP net income popped 43% from the first quarter of 2012.

Next, 3D Systems put on its shopping gloves and bought manufacturing extraordinaire Rapid Product Development Group, which should prove a nice bolt-on acquisition to be melded into the existing Quickparts Services segment. Even better, 3D Systems appears to expect RPDG to be quickly accretive to earnings, as it simultaneously boosted annual revenue guidance by $20 million to $25 million and earnings per share by $0.05.


Stapling it all together
Now, Staples has become the first major U.S. retailer to carry 3-D printers by offering 3D Systems' very own Cube printers online.

3D Systems Cube Printer on Staples.com

Even better, curious customers should also be able to get their first glimpse of the printers in person, when they become available in a limited number of Staples' bricks-and-mortar stores by the end of June.

3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental said, "We are absolutely thrilled that a leader and innovator of the caliber of Staples is making it easy to get our award-winning Cube 3D Printer family on-line and in their stores."

When we note that the market drove shares of 3D Systems up more than 8% Monday, it seems he's not the only one thrilled with the news.

Of course, the consumer-oriented device probably won't fly off shelves at $1,299.99, especially considering they'll only print in a single color. The higher-end CubeX Trio, which currently costs $3,999, can still only print up to three colors and with two types of plastic.

3D Systems CubeX Trio. Image source: 3D Systems.

Even so, this partnership should serve as a great introduction of the technology to the masses, and you can bet more people will buy a Cube now compared with when they were available only through 3D Systems' website. 

That said, while 3D Systems still isn't providing exact details on current sales numbers, management did tell investors during their earnings conference call that Cube and CubeX 3-D printer sales have already "enjoyed favorable marketplace reception, and sales of these printers continued to be at the top end of our expectations."

In addition, as with any relatively new technology, healthy competition between companies such as 3D Systems, Stratasys, and privately owned MakerBot will ensure 3-D printers only get faster, cheaper, and more powerful.

So while many people will remain mildly amused on the sidelines for now, it's only a matter of time until 3D Systems consumerizes some of its more impressive commercial solutions. For instance, late last month the company unveiled its next-gen ProJet x60 printer, which boasts the ability to print 90% of the colors available in Adobe Photoshop:

Though that incredible tech may be out of reach of the general public for now, you can bet 3D Systems can't wait until that day comes.

As Reichental stated during the Q&A portion of the last earnings call:

Will we continue to be able to double speed every couple of years and reduce costs and enhance functionality? I think so. There is a preponderance of evidence that will continue to happen, and the technological feasibility is quite favorable today. But we also think that we will benefit from the convergence of other exponential technologies like robotics and sensing and cloud computing and other enablers that will actually make the overall manufacturing process much more efficient across the board.

In the end, Reichental highlights the fact that not only will 3-D printing companies themselves propel their technology forward, but increasingly advanced tech from other businesses in seemingly disparate industries like robotics and cloud computing should also serve to make them more efficient.

That's not a particularly surprising assertion, considering I suggested just a few months ago that Amazon.com might do well to purchase MakerBot, and iRobot recently filed a patent for a 3-D printer that can print out and assemble a robot without the need for human interaction.

Putting the complete awesomeness of those innovations aside, these are just a few reasons investors would be wise to keep at least a small position in forward-thinking companies like 3D Systems.

The company is at the leading edge of a disruptive technological revolution, with the broadest portfolio of 3-D printers in the industry. However, despite years of earnings growth, 3D Systems' share price has risen even faster, and today the company sports a dizzying valuation. To help investors decide whether the future of additive manufacturing is bright enough to justify the lofty price tag on the company's shares, The Motley Fool has compiled a premium research report on whether 3D Systems is a buy right now. In our report, we take a close look at 3D Systems' opportunities, risks, and critical factors for growth. You'll also find reasons to buy or sell the stock today. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.

The article So It Begins: 3-D Printers Are Coming to a Store Near You originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Steve Symington owns shares of 3D Systems and iRobot. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Adobe Systems, Amazon.com, iRobot, and Stratasys; owns shares of 3D Systems, Amazon.com, Staples, and Stratasys; and has options on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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