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3-D Printing Goes Big, Really Big

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There are many barriers delaying the truly widespread adoption of 3-D printing.

One of them is the size of the devices. Printing out a handheld toy is neat, but we use so many things that are, well, bigger. Another roadblock is multi-material capability. I covered both of these issues early in the year in my article titled "The Death of Manufacturing is Coming... Eventually," in which I compared an early Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) industrial printer with the recently announced 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) Cube. The problem with the Cube was, and remains, that it's barely more than a toy, small and materially limited. What I suggested was, instead, that:

There's no reason the technology can't take a prominent place in home improvement warehouses to, say, print customized flooring or ensure there are enough snow shovels before a blizzard. The only restrictions are material cost and printable size. Instead of shrinking, 3-D printers should be getting bigger and more efficient. A six-foot tall printer should be able to craft something that's not much smaller than its own footprint.

Let's fast-forward to the present day.

I didn't accurately peg the industry that would first move on installing the technology in its stores -- Staples (NASDAQ: SPLS  ) became the first company to announce in-store 3-D printing services late last month -- but that doesn't preclude its later adoption by Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) to print snow shovels on demand. I'm actually impressed that Staples moved so quickly implementing an in-store service using technology that most people appear to view as a step removed from magic.

Sizing up appears now to be a very real trend in the industry. Last month, one of the biggest stories around Skyfall looked past the character depth of its villain (is an Oscar in store?) and explored its 3-D printed stunt Aston Martins, made for a more realistic-looking kaboom that wouldn't risk a priceless original. Printing something a third of the size of a real car is no mean feat, but the final result was so realistic that you just can't tell the difference. The mean machines that printed up their own wheels were made by Voxeljet, a privately held industrial 3-D printing company that has a distribution agreement with 3D Systems. That's step one toward blowing up the scale.

Step two is really blowing it up. Objet, which just completed its merger with Stratasys, unveiled the Objet 1000 at the end of November. It's a 3-D printer so large that its print area requires its own set of unloading equipment. You could feasibly print up an entire bike frame in one pass with this thing, which can hold one NFL running back's (240 pounds) worth of print material, and can print with up to 14 materials in the same job. One of the first mega-objects printed by this massive machine, probably as a proof of concept, is an adjustable wrench that's over four feet tall. You won't fix anything with it, but doesn't this line up perfectly with the whole "print your own shovel" idea? If any industry could properly use this sort of scale as an on-demand service, it's home improvement warehouses.

Now, if only they could print a little bit faster. That gigantic wrench took several days to complete, a time frame that simply will not cut it if on-demand 3-D printing expects to scale up for widespread consumer applications. I need to tighten something really big right now.

If you're looking for more information on 3D Systems, and whether it can maintain its advantage in industrial 3-D printing applications, the Fool's premium research service will have the answers you seek. Our analysts offer many insights (with some developed by yours truly) into this innovative company's key initiatives, backed with solid fundamental analysis, to help you determine whether or not 3D Systems is still a buy. Click here to subscribe today.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 9:54 PM, SwampBull wrote:

    For long term success, the printers must create quality goods which meet or exceed the traditionally crafted equivalents, at lower prices than the original counterparts, and within a reasonable amount of time. Thus, if I must drive to Lowe's to pick up a wrench which costs $16 and a 25 minute car trip, or purchase this machine and it prints it in 5 minutes, the amortized cost of the machine (unit cost/# of jobs) + material cost better be less than $16.

  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2012, at 11:51 AM, profitbgood wrote:


    Instead of Lowe’s and its suppliers having HUGE facilities that are essentially nothing more than warehouses that eat profitability and retard flexibility, the investment in the 3-D printers and its software would be the equivalent of being able to download a software program instead of having it sent from the manufacture via USPS or FedEx etc and THEN downloading the software and producing the product on the spot. Fresh Baked Cookies baked on the spot vis-à-vis on a “JUST IN TIME” basis.

    The $64K question is: Would these 3-D printers eventually replace MACRO manufacturing facilities and MACRO warehouses or would they replace the BOX store?

    Moreover, would the BOX stores ability to manufacture products “JUST IN TIME” transition the need for warehousing of FINISHED PRODUCTS to warehousing of RAW MATERIALS altogether?

    Nevertheless, the emergence of 3-D printing and CNC lasers are taking the concept of LEAN MANUFACTURING to a new level.

  • Report this Comment On December 11, 2012, at 11:30 AM, SkepikI wrote:

    Even though my instincts tell me DDD has come too far too fast, I remain long term interested and quite impressed with the long term promise of the technology. I wonder if this whole discussion does not miss the bigger point much like the early discussion of transistors or PRINTED IC technology first did. If you can make MACRO parts one or two molecules at a time, you will revolutionize materials selection and parts manufacture. Even if you could only deposit a few Angstroms at a time, the capability to produce new materials and composite parts will be light years beyond what we now can do. Ever wonder why your cast engine block in your car has to be so thick and heavy? How was Boeing able to produce wings that hold up a 787, flex fantastically and are immeasurably lighter than 757 wings? I will leave you to think about that and what MIGHT happen if DDD can lay down any kind of material micro layers at a time....

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2013, at 4:09 AM, Printing2013 wrote:

    Huax - A manufacturer of Videojet and Domino printer parts and filters

    Huax is a manufacturer of Videojet and Domino printer parts and filters,Videojet filter,Domino filter,Imaje filter,Willett filter and Linx filter.

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