Not so long ago, harried moms and dads would brave the holiday season crowds at the mall to buy those Lego accessories or that Star Wars battle cruiser.
Now, with increasingly cheap and easy-to-use three-dimensional printers, they can turn out such gifts in the comfort of the family living room or garage.
3D printers — which use a process called additive manufacturing to make objects from a digital model by laying down layers of material — aren’t new. They’ve been used to make manufacturing and engineering prototypes for more than 25 years.
But printer makers are now turning their attention to the consumer market, and have been rewarded with soaring sales and stock prices — as well as the prospect of lucrative buyouts.
Some printers capable of churning out simple items such as keychains, wine bottle holders and missing board game pieces are already selling for as little as $350. That’s cheaper than a high-end version of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 with Kinect.
“The consumer segment in the next few years will potentially devour everything else that we do,” said Abe Reichental, chief executive of 3D Systems Corp, the biggest listed U.S. 3D printer maker.
Shares of Rock Hill, South Carolina-based 3D Systems, now trading around $38, have more than doubled since it launched its first printer for home use, the Cube 3D, in January.
Demand is three times more than expected, Reichental said, although he declined to give exact numbers.
Shares of Stratasys Inc, the other major listed 3D printer maker, have more than doubled since the start of the year, to around $65 as investors sense the next big thing.
Privately held MakerBot, which released its first plug-and-play 3D printer, the Replicator, for $1,749 at the start of the year, faces a problem of too much demand, CEO Bre Pettis said.
“We expected our orders to double from our previous machine, Thing-A-Matic, and instead orders quadrupled,” Pettis said.
Brooklyn, New York-based MakerBot, founded in 2009, has shipped 13,000 printers so far.
About 80,000 3D printers of all sizes have been sold in the United States since 2007, research firm Wohlers Associates Inc says.
“If someone develops a very inexpensive and safe 3D printer for children, then I could envision maybe more than half of homes having 3D printers in them, as a toy,” said Wohlers President Terry Wohlers.