Quick. Without Googling the answer, try to name a few of the biggest companies involved in building spacecraft for America.
Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) and Boeing (NYSE: BA ) are of course the most obvious -- so dominant in the industry that they formed a joint venture boldly declaring themselves the "United Launch Alliance."
GenCorp (NYSE: GY ) probably also comes to mind. It's hard to imagine a company with more of a 1950s space-frontier feel to it than the one that owns Rocketdyne -- a name that could have come straight out of a pulp Heinlein novel.
But if you move beyond the field of the usual suspects, I have another company you might want to consider. It's a small up-and-comer in the industry -- 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD ) -- and it's perhaps the single company out there today most focused on turning Star Trek from science fiction into science fact.
Grounded on Earth
At the most basic level, 3D Systems' business follows the general rule for companies in the additive manufacturing industry. It manufactures "printers" that companies such as Black & Decker can use to produce "concept models" of equipment they might want to build, at scale, later on. Printers that can be used by companies such as Continental Tire to create "demonstration" objects, that their sales force can then take on the road with them, to show prospective clients what they might be buying. Printers to produce actual, working parts that companies such as Steeda Autosports can install in cars and test to see if they work in practice, as well as they should in theory.
But beyond the basic bread and butter of its business, 3D Systems has its sights set on much bigger things in the future.
Lost in (thought about) space
Case in point: A few weeks back, NASA announced that it's begun a project to see whether 3-D printing can be used to manufacture replacement parts for the International Space Station ... in space itself. The company NASA chose to help it test this concept is a little private shop going by the name "Made in Space." But one of the companies that Made in Space itself has partnered with to help develop the technology is none other than 3D Systems itself.
Made in Space, NASA, and 3D have the aim of using 3-D printing not just to print stopgap replacement parts in orbit, for use until permanent parts can be shipped up to them. As the technology gets refined and developed, they see a day when large-scale 3-D printers could "print" entire habitable structures for use by astronauts, laboratories for conducting science experiments, and even lightweight spaceships -- which can fly just fine in a vacuum but cannot be built on Earth and lifted up into space, because they'd be too fragile to withstand a rocky ride into orbit.
"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning"
These are all long-term goals, of course. In the more immediate term, 3D has announced this week that it's also teaming up with an ambitious private company -- would-be asteroid miner Planetary Resources -- to use 3-D printing to help build parts for Planetary's series of "ARKYD" spacecraft.
Details on 3D's involvement with Planetary are sketchy at this point. We do know, however, from Planetary's public statements that the company aims to land spacecraft atop asteroids and mine them for raw materials that can be processed into fuel for its rockets, to build "space infrastructure," and eventually to obtain precious metals that can be shipped back to Earth. We also know that Planetary hopes to begin getting this project under way as early as 2015.
It seems likely that 3D's printers, acting in the role of miniature, on-site factories, would play a major role in these efforts. At the very least, it would appear that 3D has found itself another customer for its products -- and kept a customer out of rival Stratasys' (NASDAQ: SSYS ) clutches. Announcing the team-up, Planetary co-founder Dr. Peter H. Diamandis praised 3D for being "the world's pioneer and leader in 3D printing and advanced manufacturing." This probably is highly suggestive of where Planetary will be doing its 3-D printer shopping in the future.
Skeptics will certainly point out -- and rightly so -- that much of 3D's "space" plans sound like pie in the sky. Partnerships are all well and good, but to truly justify the 100-times earnings price tag investors are being asked to pay for 3D shares, what the company really needs is profits growth.
For now, analysts only expect 3D to grow its profits at about 20% per year over the next five years. That's a lower expectation than what they've posited for Stratasys (30% growth). Then again, at least 3D Systems has profits to grow, while Stratasys is currently GAAP-unprofitable. And the more unconventional places -- like space -- into which 3D looks to expand its business, the greater the potential for the company to grow its profits even faster.
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