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General Electric Takes 3-D Printing Very Seriously

Behind the consumer-facing headlines of 3-D printers printing out spectacles like Stradivarius violin replicas and delicious candy, major manufacturers have been quietly investing in the technology for years. 3-D printing, the process of creating a product by printing out one layer of material over another, has key advantages for manufacturers, allowing industrial designs to be created that wouldn't be possible with traditional manufacturing, and allowing designs to be physically prototyped rapidly. These possibilities have led General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , one of the world's largest manufacturers, to project that 50% or more of its manufacturing will use 3-D printing technology in 20 years.

Cross section of a 3-D printed fuel nozzle.
Photo Credit: GE

General Electric has been quick to take 3-D printing seriously. Its aviation unit, which produces jet engines for large aircraft, bought up two 3-D printing companies in 2012 to produce engine components.Just last month, GE Aviation began testing the LEAP-1A, which is one of the world's most advanced jet engines courtesy, in part, to the 3-D printed fuel nozzles it sports. The new 3-D-printed nozzle, which is printed in one piece, will be 25% lighter, and five times more durable, than the 20-part traditional nozzle it will replace. Both the speed with which the nozzle has been rolled out, as well as its superior performance, are testaments to the advantages manufacturers can realize with 3-D printing.

General Electric recently told Investor's Business Daily that less than 10% of GE's manufactured products use 3-D printing today, meaning that either the products themselves are 3-D printed, the products were created using 3-D printed tools, or early iterations of the product were 3-D-printed in the development phase to aid product design. GE expects the percentage of products that are "touched" by 3-D printing in these ways to climb as high as 25% in 10 years, and to 50% or higher in 20 years.

With annual sales of around $150 billion, half of General Electric's industrial output would be a huge market for 3-D printing on its own, but GE is not alone in its adoption of the technology. For example, the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies Corporation (NYSE: UTX  ) , a key competitor in the design and manufacture of jet engines, has owned a fleet of 3-D printers for rapid prototyping of component designs since 1988; but this year, more than two dozen 3-D printed engine components were actually included in the final design of a jet engine. If leading manufacturers, like GE and United Technologies, continue to prove the effectiveness of 3-D printing, investors should expect the rest of the industry to follow.

One might think that the interest of big manufacturers in 3-D printing applications could lead them to create their own 3-D printers, competing with pure-play 3-D printer manufacturers like 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) , Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) , and ExOne (NASDAQ: XONE  ) . So far, however, the big guys have mostly been content to purchase equipment from pure-play 3-D printers, and adopt it to suit their needs. This creates a huge market for standalone 3-D printer manufacturers, and the resulting race to fill it.

This porous titanium sphere would have been impossible to build without 3-D printing
Photo credit: GE 

One of the most important factors in capturing the industrial manufacturing market will be a 3-D printer's ability to print with strong, durable materials, like metals. The largest two 3-D printing companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys, are currently mostly exposed to consumer, medical, and rapid prototyping markets, with significant expertise in plastic and biocompatible print material, and low-cost printers that are designed for the mass consumer market. That's left a space in the manufacturing market for smaller companies with intellectual property and experience in printing with metal for industrial clients. ExOne is currently the only public company that specializes in metal printing; Arcam, EOS, and voxeljet are also significant players.

None of these companies are nearly as large as Stratasys and 3D Systems and, as the metal-printing market emerges, the larger companies have made it clear they will expand into metal printing. 3D Systems acquired metal print specialist Phenix Systems earlier this year, while Stratasys recently completed a new public offering to raise over $400 million, much of which will surely go toward acquisitions. Meanwhile, ExOne has doubled in value since it went public earlier this year, and voxeljet is preparing to hit public markets any day now. With a massive market in industrial manufacturing ahead of them, potentially worth tens of billions of dollars if General Electric's prediction is right, the race is on to print with metal.

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