Can Microsoft, HP, and Apple Benefit From 3D Printing Technology?

Eileen is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

The 3D printing industry is garnering a lot of attention lately as 3D printer models reach your local office supply store or are available for purchase online. As prices have dropped, interest in the technology has increased among amateurs and professionals alike. Many issues revolve around the use of this technology, such as the potential lawsuits that may arise from piracy of copyrighted designs and product liability of items that have been repeatedly modified by different parties, which may impact the companies that make the technology available.

Despite the challenges arising from its use, 3D printing is expected to change manufacturing, especially of items that are produced in lower volumes, and make it easier for the average Joe or Jane to build a prototype. How can companies like Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ), or Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) jump on this emerging consumer trend that could provide opportunities for future growth?

Microsoft and its latest Windows update

At Build 2013, a developer conference in San Francisco, Microsoft presented Makerbot’s Replicator desktop 3D printer model and how Windows 8.1 provides native support to 3D printers, the first operating system to have this capability. According to Barron’s and The Verge, “developers will be able to add 3D printing capabilities to their apps, and printing an object will be a simple tap on a ‘charm,’ a utility shortcut on the side of the Windows 8.1 screen.” In addition, Microsoft is planning on selling the Replicator in its stores, however, Windows 8.1 supports 3D printers from other vendors.

Shares of Stratasys and 3D Systems, which provide 3D printers to the consumer sector, rose after the announcement, while Microsoft shares rose as well. Stratasys recently purchased Makerbot and entered the consumer segment to compete with 3D Systems’ Cube desktop 3D printer, currently sold at Staples. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft’s addition of 3D printing capabilities to Windows will increase interest in the software and 3D printing and translate into higher sales for both products.

At HP, something’s brewing in the lab

Hewlett-Packard first ventured into the 3D printing space through a partnership, created in 2010, with Stratasys to create HP-branded 3D printers. The arrangement ended last year, but HP’s R&D team hasn’t abandoned research in 3D printing technology. A 2012 tech report from HP Labs discusses an ongoing project, called RAGNAROK, exploring the use of glass as a material in 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing.

The report touts glass as a material because it's abundant, easily recycled, environment friendly, cheap, and most people like and are familiar with it. The challenge for current 3D printers is the ability to print transparent glass and the report goes into several possible ways of printing it. Could this be a sign of a possible HP 3D printer down the road? Some tech insiders think HP could regain its status as a technology innovator with its own 3D printer (for more information, check here and here).

Will we see 3D designs for sale on iTunes?

Since Microsoft has beat Apple to the punch bowl by being the first to include 3D printing capabilities in its operating system, will Apple make 3D printing accessible to its customers? Some interesting theories abound of how Apple can benefit from 3D printing, such as this one and this one. A 3D printer from Apple could be the next innovation that grows the company the way the iPhone and iPad did when they first entered the market.

The presence of an army of Geniuses that provide support and troubleshooting could also be an incentive that lead consumers to try 3D printing. As the technology becomes more commonplace and piracy becomes more of an issue, Apple could also sell 3D design files through iTunes the same way they sell music files and apps.

Conclusion

After two decades of using the technology, the industrial sector has documented the benefits and problems of 3D printing. Meanwhile, these issues and their impact on the consumer segment of the market are still unfolding. Of the three companies mentioned, Microsoft has taken the first step in seeing the potential of 3D printing and making it easier for consumers to warm up to this new technology.

And there’s a strong possibility that HP and Apple could also incorporate 3D printing into their product lines. Investors should watch for developments at these tech companies on 3D printing as a sign that this new technology could help drive their sales and growth for the foreseeable future.

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Eileen Rojas has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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