LAS VEGAS — The 3D printers captured the imagination of attendees at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. So did smartphone battery packs, home robots and ARM, in another big day at the Las Vegas show that ends Friday.
"3D printers are going to change everything in our lifetime," recording artist and tech entrepreneur Will.i.am said at a CES event this week. The Black Eyed Peas frontman marveled at the prospect of creating items you need at home.
"In our minds, 2013 could be the year of 3D printing," Abe Reichental, chief executive of 3D Systems, told IBD. "It's getting to a point of awareness and recognition by the other 99% that never heard of it before ... . We think that in the next five years there's going to be a 3D printer in most homes because we see it as a very powerful education and creativity tool.
At 3D Systems' booth, rows of desktop printers cranked out plastic toys and other items. The Rock Hill, S.C.-based company showcased how its printers can make numerous items, including smartphone cases that looked like stitched leather or snakeskin.
This quarter, 3D Systems plans to begin to produce models and toys from the "Star Trek" TV shows and movies, under a license with CBS (CBS). 3D Systems will offer the figures through its content hosting and publishing platform Cubify.
And within a few months, fans of the video game "Minecraft" will be able to print items from the game with their 3D Systems printers.
"We're really bringing a coloring-book model into 3D creation," Reichental said. The company's software and services make 3D printing much easier for hobbyists and others, he says.
At the show, 3D Systems unveiled the second generation of its home 3D printer, called the Cube. The new device costs $1,399 and features faster printing, better quality, and more materials and colors.
3D Systems also introduced a higher-end version called the CubeX, which sells for $2,499.
Reichental said his goals for the show included attracting companies to distribute 3D printers and partners who can host publishing and production of content by major brands.
3D Systems is studying how to sell its products in retail stores, he said. That could include opening its own retail stores, much like Apple (AAPL) did to showcase its products, Reichental says.
Privately held MakerBot Industries is showing off two new 3D printers at CES, the MakerBot Replicator 2 for $2,199 and the MakerBot Replicator 2X for $2,799.
"(The market) is developing a little faster than we can make MakerBots," MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis told IBD. "People who know what 3D printing is find out how much it costs, and their credit card is out and they're on the phone or they're on the website.
Both 3D Systems and MakerBot offer online catalogs of printable items from its users.
Backup Battery Packs Heat Up
As smartphone makers move to thinner, lighter and more capable handsets, they're creating a cottage industry for companies that make backup battery packs.
Smartphones, especially those running on 4G wireless networks, can consume a lot of battery power. And handset makers have focused on style rather than bolstering battery capacity.
Numerous companies selling auxiliary batteries for smartphones are dotting the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
The market for battery accessories has reached a "tipping point" with consumers realizing the need for extra battery power for their Apple and Google (GOOG) Android-based smartphones if they want to use them all day, says Reuben Miller, a representative with Lenmar Enterprises.
With protective cases for smartphones costing up to $50, it's a no-brainer to buy a case with a built-in battery for just a little bit more. Lenmar sells iPhone cases that double the battery life of the phone, starting at $59.
Ron Ferber, chief executive of MyCharge, agrees. "Most cases cost $30 or $40, so now you can protect and charge for not much more," he said.
People in Asia are ahead of the U.S. in terms of carrying extra batteries for their phones, says Lenmar Marketing Manager Carol Chi.
Companies also are selling battery packs that can charge one or more smartphones — and even tablets — simultaneously.
MyCharge got its start selling the battery packs, but now has added protective cases with built-in batteries. Its big selling point with the packs is batteries with "cords on board," Ferber said.
"With most of the systems out there, you have to remember to bring the battery and the cords and adapters. If you miss any of those, you're screwed," Ferber said.
He described the company's auxiliary batteries as "a 5-hour energy drink for your phone.
Other firms at CES selling smartphone cases with built-in batteries include Avance Electronics, CasePower, Dexim, Gosh and iBatz.
Robot Does Windows
Cleaning ladies and iRobot (IRBT) have something in common. They both don't do windows.
But a Chinese company hopes to do the dirty job.
Ecovacs Robotics introduced its second-generation Winbot at CES this week. The first version of the robot, which cleans the inside and outside of windows, was released in late 2011, but it wasn't available in the U.S., says Maryam Gueramian, marketing manager for Ecovacs.
The Winbot grips windows with vacuum suction and is tethered with its electrical cord so it won't run out of power or fall to the ground even if it did. It has two pads — one for washing the window and the other for drying.
"Anybody who's working and doesn't have time to clean their windows and would rather do something else on their Saturdays" is the target market for the device, Gueramian said.
Ecovacs hasn't priced the Winbot yet, but expects it to retail in the spring for $300 to $400.
Ecovacs also sells robotic vacuum cleaners that compete with iRobot's market-leading Roomba products.
Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot has demonstrated window-washing robots in its labs, but the devices aren't ready for prime time, iRobot Chief Operating Officer Jeff Beck told IBD. He said he was not familiar with the Ecovacs Winbot.
"When you think of the basic physics you have to overcome to climb something vertically and somehow get cleanliness when you're done, and then the crazy variation of window infrastructure in the world, it's one heck of a problem," Beck said.
"When we think about a new robot product, it's important for us to be able to scale it, make it in vast quantities and make it profitable and serviceable when it gets out into the channel.
IRobot isn't willing to do low-volume consumer robots, he said. But the company will continue to look at applications like window cleaning for future robots.
At CES, iRobot announced next-generation versions of its Mira pool-cleaning robot and Looj gutter-cleaning robots.
ARM Riding High At CES
ARM Holdings (ARMH), the world leader in mobile chip designs, is basking in the glow of a big customer win and a high-profile chip launch at CES, and the stock rose 5% Thursday to a 13-year high.
On Tuesday, Broadcom (BRCM) licensed ARM v7 and v8 technology for use in chips for broadband access and TV set-top boxes.
In a keynote presentation Wednesday at CES, Samsung touted the use of ARM technology in its Exynos 5 Octa chip. Samsung says the new chip for smartphones and tablets will offer a leap ahead in performance and power savings.
Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa chip is the first product to ship using ARM's Big Little concept.
"Big Little as a concept really is a game-changer for power efficiency, and that chip looks really good," ARM President Simon Segars told IBD on Thursday. "That's a really interesting-looking device. It's going to give great flexibility to the consumer products that get built around it.
ARM expects to see other chips using the Big Little concept of high performance and low power, Segars said. He says announcements could be made at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.