3D printing goes mainstream with Stratasys' $403m MakerBot buy

The future of 3D printing might have got a little brighter with Stratasys's planned acquisition of MakerBot.

3D printers from New York startup MakerBot could become cheaper and more widely available under its new Israeli owner, Stratasys.

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Can you build a moonbase with a 3D printer? Can you build a moonbase with a 3D printer? The European Space Agency is carrying out tests to find out if it is possible to build structures on the moon for human habitation with a 3D printer.

Founded by 3D printing pioneer Bre Pettis in 2009, the fast-growing maker of 3D desktop printers for prosumers and designers will merge with its Israel-headquartered industrial peer, Stratasys, in a stock-for-stock transaction worth $403m that was announced Wednesday.

While Stratasys boasts 3D printing clients such as NASA, BMW, Ducati and others across aerospace, automotive and consumer sectors, Makerbot has built a broad community of designers and an ecosystem software tools, e-commerce platforms and design creation hubs to make transforming bits into things more accessible.

MakerBot will operate as a separate entity after the deal is complete, but the companies will jointly develop a strategy that could help drive down the cost of MakerBot's desktop 3D printers and flesh out its current two-printer product lineup.

MakerBot's Thingiverse.com currently hosts 90,000 3D product files and the site attracts 500,000 unique visits and one million downloads each month. Most sales of its $2,000 to $3,000 3D printers, the MakerBot 2 and MakerBot X2, are online, but it also has distribution partners overseas and recently launched a retail outlet in New York.

The merger is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2013 and on the cards are tapping Stratasys' global distribution network to accelerate MakerBot's reach. The deal confirms a report in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that the company was in acquisition talks. Besides prosumers, MakerBot has made headway with industrial customers, including Ford, it noted.     

The two companies estimate that between 35,000 to 40,000 printers were sold in 2012, and they expect that to double in 2013 thanks to so-called prosumers like engineers and designers who just like to make stuff. MakerBot has also announced a new 3D scanner, the MakerBot Digitizer.

MakerBot will continue to establish strategic partnerships like the ones it has struck with Nokia, which recently partnered on printable phone cases, as well Amazon, an early investor in MakerBot, which last week launched its own 3D printing and supplies store

Other opportunities the pair will canvas include integrating Stratesys' expertise in the layer-by-layer based additive manufacturing technology "Fused Deposition Modeling" into MakerBot's printers.

Stratesys itself builds Solidscape 3D printers and operates an on-demand digital manufacturing service and is somewhat of a specialist in supplies, with more than 130 3D printing materials, 12 proprietary ink-jet photopolymer materials and 10 proprietary FDM-based thermoplastic materials.

MakerBot's revenues in 2012 were $15.7m and the company generated $11.5m in the first quarter of 2013.

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