3D printing market has been witnessing an interesting dynamic of acquisitions in the last few years. By acquiring strategic companies early in their life cycle, buyers get skills, knowledge and technologies faster and accelerate innovation by picking winners, become owners of 3D content, technologies, materials, talents, and, last but not least – acquire large chunks of market share.
3D Systems and Stratasys, leaders of the 3D printing manufacturing market, have managed to counter the threat of competition by acquiring a number of leaders such as Z Corporation, DTM, Solidscape and MakerBot. 3D Systems has made 39 acquisitions in the last four years (2010-2013). This strategy has allowed it to obtain a number of intellectual property rights, including two of its key patents, SLS and 3DP.
In 2013, 3D Systems had 973 patents and 204 pending patent applications worldwide.Stratasys held more than 550 patents, including the popular FDM and PolyJet-based technologies, this last one procured thanks to its merger with Objet. After the expiration of the original patent for FDM in 2009, an enormous open source movement appeared, MakerBot was created and production of low-cost 3D printers from all sort of companies massively expanded. However, the expiration of the first patent is not always enough.
Later improvements in patents are often the key for commercialization and low-cost printers. For instance, regarding 3D Systems’ improvements, several relevant patents in SLA and one of its SLS key patents expired this year, considered by many an important milestone for 3D printing The expiration of key technology patents implies the entry of new competitors in the market, which forces companies to accelerate innovation and drive down the prices, compressing their gross profit margins.
And innovation fuels 3D Systems’ and Stratasys’ growth. In addition to external growth, 3D Systems and Stratasys have tripled and quadrupled their staff in the last 3 years, respectively, and significantly increased their R&D spending.