When I talk about our strategy of backing companies that build products people love, and say that some of those will be physical products people often remark that 3D printing must be an exciting enabling technology for us. That will be true one day in the not too distant future, but it isn’t true today. 3D printing is improving fast in terms of materials that can be printed and the price is dropping fast, most obviously in consumer printers, some of which are now retailing for sub $500, but other than prototyping there aren’t many large scale commercial applications for 3D printing.
The reason is that the finish and durability of most 3D printed plastics falls short of market requirements and that unit prices are generally too high for anything other than very short runs. That limits the commercial applications of 3D printing to high price complex products that are difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. Hearing aids are a good example, they can be custom printed to match a patient’s ear and the internal structures can be better optimised to carry sound using 3D printing than any other manufacturing method. Body panels for specialist cars are another good example, their complex shapes can be printed as single pieces whereas alternative manufacturing methods produce multiple items that need to be assembled.
I doubt it will be too long before we back a company that is leveraging 3D printing to build an amazing new product, but before that happens we will most likely see a few companies in this space that we choose not to back. That hasn’t happened yet.