3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) has acquired WeMatter, a Swedish startup that manufactures entry-level powder bed fusion (PBF) 3D printers. WeMatter came on the market in 2019 with its Gravity 3D printer, a polymer selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer complete with vacuum cleaner, software and depowdering that can be purchased for a $59,000 to $125,000. Handy cartridges reduce mess, while the system is meant to be very accessible and easy to use.
The deal comes after the American multinational had entered into a distribution agreement with the startup in 2022. Jeffrey Graves, 3D Systems CEO, had this to say of the deal:
“We continue to invest in our solution portfolio through strategic acquisitions that add unique technologies to enable rapid adoption of additive manufacturing in production environments. Wematter has designed an SLS solution that is unmatched in the industry that allows the technology to be used in environments where it would previously have been deemed impossible. Since the announcement last fall that 3D Systems would become the exclusive global distributor of Wematter’s products, it became increasingly apparent to us how beneficial it would be to have this team and technology as part of our company. Through the acquisition of Wematter, we’ll benefit from their team’s unique engineering approach and expertise as part of our R&D organization, and our customers will benefit from the capabilities of this user-friendly, elegant platform at a more affordable price point. I believe this will enable a new category of manufacturers to take advantage of the benefits of additive manufacturing to transform their businesses and accelerate innovation.”
WeMatter´s market entry was potentially disruptive because it put a complete solution in between the Sinterit, Sintratec, and Formlabs entry-level PBF solutions but with lower prices than Chinese firms, such as Farsoon and EOS and 3D Systems´ offerings. Introducing a supremely well-segmented product into a fast-evolving market was always going to be difficult. PBF development is also hard, partially due to the need to work around a lot of carefully crafted patents and partially because the material science and physics is so much more incomprehensible it. WeMatter´s Gravity is a credible product though that could very well open the door to powder bed for someone who is loitering on the doorstep. Especially in combination with a leasing offering, the systems could be very affordable indeed.
I´ve long loved the idea of using a cluster of low-cost PBF printers as a manufacturing tool. WeMatter also claims that its PA 11 parts are stronger than competitors. The real star is the powder handling solution that is easy and less messy than alternatives though. This lets you use it in a semi-factory or maybe even an office environment. The Gravity Essential, Gravity Essential+, and Gravity Enterprise packages are also very complete solutions at different price points.
For 3D Systems, this is a logical extension to its current line up. The company can use the Gravity to do battle with Formlabs. Perhaps it would be logical for the firm to acquire either Sinterit or Sintratec so it has a desktop to industrial portfolio to keep the competition away from its core offering, while cross-selling increasingly high-value products to its installed base. Existing resellers would really benefit from a mature offering that can take powder bed from desk to industrial.
Having said that, entry-level PBF has not really exploded in demand, in part its the size of the companies attracted to the technology. People that want to make 5,000 of something a day often have a few grand a month to spare to lease an an HP machine or an EOS P110. Powder bed really shines when you want yield, tough parts with good detail, and you want to throw a lot of geometries at a process. This also corresponds well to the requirements of services or large corporates. Meanwhile the messiness of powder, as well as health risk has not been sufficiently assuaged in peoples minds for them to take the leap.
There’s a certain inertia and logic to powder bed that is hard to escape from. If a friend was buying a large diesel truck, you would think that this is logical. If another friend bought a small diesel city car you would think that would be weird. This may be due in part to the advantages of diesel for torque but the picture is actually muddled. Diesel engines have been more expensive. Some say they are more polluting in some ways, while in other ways they emit less Co2. Varying incentives have led to petrol dominance and extensive diesel use in heavy vehicles. In the US only three percent of cars are Diesel while in Europe 50 percent are. That factoid alone should point to the effect that government incentives, historical artifacts and behaviors have on technology choice. At one point a plumber will always look for a diesel truck everywhere, while in some places people who drive a lot will consider diesel because of pricing differences. With powder bed we’ve seen this happen as well. At one point for some people 3D printing is institutionalized as material extrusion while others think only of powder bed. This means that finding adoption in the mid market could yet be complex.
We can see this if we look at the low number of resellers WeMatter has. Operating direct everywhere is tricky and its hard to sell something that is well segmented to the point of being uniquely positioned. Lack of directly comparable products could seem like a marketing gold mine but also undermines confidence. In a mature market such positioning could be a breakthrough but in a new one it could reduce willingness to buy in what looks to be a lone solution. There could be a lot of potential in WeMatter for 3D printing. A lot of people have been trying to solve the technology challenges of affordable powder bed fusion. But, I think that no one has sufficiently come up with a good go to market for the technology. If they crack that, this will be a great extension for them.
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