At a time in the not too distant future, a patient suffering from organ failure may not need to wait on a donor transplant list in order to acquire a new, healthy organ. If researchers at Wake Forest University continue their remarkable progress, a doctor may be able to simply “print” a new organ for the patient. This treatment may seem straight out of a science fiction movie, but it is grounded in a real manufacturing process known as 3D printing.

3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but it is only in the past decade that the technology has really taken off. Recent advancements in material science and design software have propelled the technology into the mainstream, and an increasing number of innovative companies are adopting the technology to optimize supply chains and address complex problems.

Modern 3D printers are capable of producing objects from a wide variety of materials, and they can quickly print objects that are larger and far more complex than was possible only a few years ago.

3D printing is an essential component of Industry 4.0, a term described by Deloitte as the “new industrial revolution—one that marries advanced manufacturing techniques with the Internet of Things to create manufacturing systems that are not only interconnected, but communicate, analyze, and use information to drive further intelligent action back in the physical world.” 3D printing is helping to drive this new industrial revolution by democratizing the design and manufacturing process.

As 3D printing becomes more advanced and cost-effective, the technology is gaining greater exposure and novel applications are being pioneered left and right. For instance, international nonprofit New Story, in partnership with Texas-based digital manufacturing company, ICON, are using a massive 3D printer to “print” homes for impoverished residents in rural Mexico.

[3D printing isn’t the only new technology poised to change the world. Here’s a look at the investment landscape for Virtual Reality]

Many remarkable applications are being developed in the field of regenerative medicine, such as research at the University of Arizona where shattered bones are being healed by inserting synthetic bones created using a 3D printer. The applications of 3D printing are only limited by one’s imagination, and the transformative potential of the technology is staggering.

For those interested in the investment potential of this rapidly-growing sector, there are a few important points to understand.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing process that uses digital designs to create three-dimensional objects. 3D printing is also sometimes called additive manufacturing because the object is created layer by layer, from the bottom up, by adding successive layers of material until the object takes shape.

This stands in contrast to the more common subtractive manufacturing process, in which an object is formed by starting with a large piece of material and removing excess material in order to obtain the shape of the desired object. A laser cutting out a specific pattern on a large metal sheet is an example of a subtractive manufacturing process.

3D printing has several key advantages over subtractive manufacturing. For one, 3D printing can significantly reduce the amount of time between the design and production of a new product. A 3D printer can quickly render a functional prototype for designers and engineers to test, which saves time and money that would otherwise be spent waiting on prototypes created using more traditional manufacturing processes.

Another key advantage of 3D printing is waste reduction. In additive manufacturing, only the material that is needed to create the object is used, while subtractive manufacturing wastes a significant amount of material in the form of scrap pieces and shavings that are removed to shape the object. Even if these scrap pieces can be recycled, there is an added expense in time and money to see it through.

Another enormous advantage of 3D printing is design complexity. 3D printers can produce an object with designs so complex and intricate that it would be impossible to produce using any other manufacturing method. This is not to say that 3D printing and subtractive manufacturing are mutually exclusive. To maximize supply chain efficiency, innovative companies utilize both processes simultaneously and at different stages of the manufacturing process.

Why Invest in 3D Printing?

The 3D printing sector is starting to grow rapidly.

According to a report by Deloitte, sales from large, public, 3D printing companies will exceed $2.7 billion in 2019 and surpass $3 billion in 2020. Deloitte predicts that this segment of the 3D printing industry will grow at about 12.5 percent in both 2019 and 2020, which is more than double the growth rate from just a few years prior.

To account for current growth and projected growth, Deloitte points to several recent industry developments, including large companies entering the market and driving innovation, along with dramatic technological advancements (more 3D-printable materials, faster print speeds, and a larger build volume).

The Deloitte report further notes that: “After decades of development, 3D printing has finally reached a period of sustained growth greater than most other manufacturing technologies. As with so many other new technologies, it is important to ‘think big, start small, and scale fast.’ The next few years are likely to see 3D printing become much more widely used in all sorts of manufacturing, from robots to rocket ships. The ripple effects on industries even beyond manufacturing may be profound.”

And the rise of Big Data analytics is only accelerating this trend, opening up vast new data sets that be used to design and optimize 3D models.

With respect to the 3D printing market as a whole, Mordor Intelligence expects the market to grow to about $49 billion by 2024 (up from about $10.50 billion in 2018) at a rate of about 29.50%. Mordor notes that North America currently holds the largest share of the market and is well-positioned for exponential growth: “With these series of investments, healthcare, aerospace & defense, industrial, and consumer product applications in North America are set to boom over the upcoming years.”

This growth potential is not limited to North America. The Asia-Pacific region is largely an untapped market at this point, and it is projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next several years.

How to Invest in 3D Printing

However, given the fact that 3D printing is a relatively new industrial sector and is still growing, investing directly in the companies that are leading the way can be risky. Rather, investing in a mutual fund or ETF dedicated to 3D printing can be a good way to gain exposure to this fast-growing niche without taking on the risk of a direct investment. According to a search on Magnifi, there are a number of funds and ETFs that access 3D printing.

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