October 12, 2015      

The 3D printing market is continuing to consolidate, as companies such as Microsoft and Stratasys strengthen their ecosystems for software and services. However, even as additive manufacturing moves from prototyping to production, the promise of 3D printers in the home looks far off.

Autodesk Inc. is acquiring netfabb GmbH and is investing in its parent company, FIT AG. Both netfabb and FIT Technology Group are based in Germany and provide software for additive manufacturing.

Lupburg, Germany-based netfabb develops software for industrial additive design and manufacturing, and FIT Additive Manufacturing Group provides software and services. According to netfabb, more than 80,000 people worldwide use its products, which San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk plans to integrate into its Fusion 360 software and the Spark 3D printing platform.

Netfabb’s software includes proprietary methods for managing stereolithography (STL) files. It can also repair damaged 3D models and organize jobs for a range of 3D printers.

As an example of the complex structures its software can create, netfabb recently demonstrated a 3D-printed reef. Such artificial reefs could help protect shellfish farms and preserve marine ecosystems.

Netfabb's 3D-printed reef

Netfabb’s software manages 3D models for printing.

In addition, netfabb technology has been used with MakerBot to create high-quality replicas of ancient sculptures. This could help replace works of art that have been stolen or vandalized or even prevent such losses by putting replicas in museums. FIT is also building a €20 million ($22.7 million) facility for additive design to support advanced manufacturing.

“We look forward to welcoming the netfabb team to Autodesk and helping designers and manufacturers worldwide take 3D printing beyond prototyping and plastics, to reliably creating production-grade parts at scale,” said Samir Hanna, Autodesk vice president and general manager of consumer and 3D printing.

Autodesk has been moving into 3D printing on several fronts this year, according to 3Dprint.com. For instance, Autodesk has partnered with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design software to advance 3D printed designs such as helmets.

Computer-aided design software maker Autodesk will gain “instant credibility” and 3D capabilities from netfabb to expand in the maker and industrial communities, said engineering market-analysis firm Schnitger Corp.

Terms of the deal, which is expected to close late next year, weren’t disclosed. Autodesk plans to fund the acquisition from its foreign cash reserves.

Both Autodesk and netfabb are members of Microsoft Corp.’s 3MF Consortium, which is developing the .3MF file format for 3D printing. Autodesk’s Spark is embedded into Windows 10.

Autodesk also recently added a 5,000 square-foot robotics lab to its San Francisco workshop. The two-story structure includes a steel plate in the floor to anchor robot prototypes, a machine shop, and a movable conference room in an orange shipping container.

Proto Labs expands in Europe

Proto Labs Inc. is acquiring additive manufacturing assets from Alphaform AG. Maple Plain, Minn.-based Proto Labs claims to be “the world’s fastest digital manufacturing source for custom prototypes and low-volume production parts” using 3D printing, computer numerical control (CNC) machining, and injection molding.

Proto Labs will buy Feldkirchen, Germany-based Alphaform’s laser sintering and STL capabilities, as well as its injection-molding service. Proto Labs will acquire facilities in Germany, Finland, and the U.K.

“We are pleased to announce this strategic acquisition, which will accelerate the growth of our additive manufacturing services in Europe and complement our current injection-molding and CNC machining services,” said Vicki Holt, president and CEO of Proto Labs.

MakerBot slide indicates market immaturity

In the past six months, MakerBot Industries LLC has lost 200 people, or 40 percent of its staff, in two rounds of layoffs. The company has had difficulty meeting the financial goals set by Stratasys Ltd., which acquired it in 2013 for $400 million.

“We are facing tremendous challenges at MakerBot,” CEO Jonathan Jaglom told The Verge. “Across the board, throughout the industry, we are seeing a very slow growth pace in the 3D printing space, and of course, MakerBot is impacted by that as well.”

Jaglom, who came to MakerBot from Stratasys, said that splitting MakerBot’s staff among multiple locations hurt it. “The fact that we were splintered across the organization caused for misalignment, miscommunication, [and a] more challenging environment for our staff to work in,” he said.

The company had hoped to move from educational and engineering customers into household 3D printing. However, it had to close its three retail locations this past spring, and it is consolidating its Industry City manufacturing facilities in Brooklyn, N.Y. MakerBot still has offices in Asia and Europe.

“The consumer market is very much in its infancy,” Jaglom said. “There is a consumer market. … I believe it is there, but I definitely believe that we’re not there yet.”