A 3-D Printer That Can Print Parts 200 Times Faster and 10 Times Bigger Is One Giant Step Closer to Commercialization

Even if you're invested in 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) , Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) , or others in the 3-D printing space, you might not be familiar with what's being dubbed "big area additive manufacturing," or BAAM. That's not surprising as the 3-D printing companies aren't involved in this type of large-scale 3-D printing for industrial uses.

BAAM machine background

Source: Cincinnati

I introduced Foolish readers to BAAM back in February after privately held Cincinnati Inc. signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab to develop a 3-D printer that is 200-500 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger than most of today's 3-D printers. The team's goal is to speed up the commercialization of a new 3-D printing machine that can print large polymer parts faster and more cheaply than current technologies in order to "strengthen domestic manufacturing of highly advanced components for the automotive, aerospace, appliance, robotics and many other industries."

In April, I provided an update of the project after a Local Motors' press release announced that Cincinnati Inc.'s BAAM machine will produce a 3-D printed electric vehicle at The International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, which will be held in September. Now, I have more specifics to share that haven't been reported elsewhere, to my knowledge, as I spoke with Rick Neff, manager of market development at Cincinnati, via telephone last Friday.

BAAM machine: current status, size, speed
I asked Neff about the status of the system, the size of the build box, and specifics about speed.

Cincinnati has already delivered an "alpha" BAAM machine to Oak Ridge National Lab. In fact, the company will be displaying polymer parts that this system produced at RAPID, which is one of the premier trade shows for the 3-D printing industry, and runs June 9-12 in Detroit.

The BAAM machine's build box size is a gargantuan two meters by four meters by 0.86 meters. Speed isn't as clear cut to define, so I simply asked Neff if the alpha machine's speed lives up to the project's goal of developing a system that is "200 times faster than most 3-D printers on the market," and he said that it did.

Materials
I asked Neff about the types of materials the BAAM machine can print, whether it requires proprietary materials, and what future materials are on the docket.

The huge 3-D printer can print in several types of thermoplastics -- both fiber-reinforced and non-reinforced ones. Generally, the term "fiber-reinforced" refers to carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, or CFRP, though the BAAM machine can print in CFRP, as well as plastics reinforced with other materials.

The BAAM system will use commodity materials, not proprietary ones, which should certainly help widespread adoption. So, Cincinnati Inc.'s business model is different than that of 3D Systems and Stratasys. Cincinnati will be making money selling its large-scale 3-D printer and, presumably, providing maintenance and spare parts. The publicly traded 3-D printing companies all have "razor and blade"-like strategies to varying degrees, in that they make some profit on the 3-D printer (or "razor"), and make a considerable amount of profit on the materials ("blades"). This is because they make printers that require proprietary materials, so sizable markups are possible.

These razor-and-blade strategies have been very successful. However, this is surely because 3-D printers are now almost entirely used for prototyping and small-run production. Once 3-D printers make increased inroads into manufacturing applications -- as in large runs through mass manufacturing -- a razor-and-blade strategy will likely be much less effective. That's because many manufacturing customers won't find it cost-effective to buy huge quantities of highly marked-up proprietary materials.

Cincinnati's expertise lies largely in manufacturing metal-working machines, so it seems likely to me that metals could be next on the materials docket after the BAAM machine successfully aces printing in polymers. Neff couldn't comment on this topic.

Target market and competition
Understandably, Neff couldn't go into the specifics about the company's target market at this point. However, he did verify that the BAAM is geared toward the heavy-duty industrial market.

When I previously wrote about companies involved in large-scale 3-D printing, I highlighted both Cincinnati and Lockheed Martin, and mentioned both were or had been working with Oak Ridge National Lab. Neff confirmed what I suspected: that there is a link between each of these companies' projects with ORNL.

Neff views Cincinnati's competitors to be companies making traditional, subtractive manufacturing equipment, rather than any of the 3-D printing companies. I fully agree with this viewpoint, as currently neither 3D Systems nor Stratasys, nor the other publicly traded 3-D printing companies, have offerings aimed at industrial customers that mass manufacture large sized polymer parts. Neff went on to say that he thought 3D Systems and Stratasys have "solid business plans," and there's certainly no argument from me on this point. Each of these companies brings something unique to the table.

How the BAAM machine will control warping
There's one huge challenge involved when 3-D printing large components: warping. That's because all 3-D printing technologies involve heating the material to be printed, which often results in large printed parts warping because areas with varying thicknesses cool at different rates.

One method to control warping is to use reinforced plastics, and Neff noted that using them in the BAAM machine works "phenomenally well" to control warping. Oak Ridge National Lab's expertise has surely been invaluable here, as the lab has a premier materials science program, and reportedly recently developed special carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics that could be 3-D printed. The Cincinnati-ORNL team is also working on other methods, according to Neff.

Foolish final thoughts
A 3-D printer that can produce very large polymer components for the industrial market at speeds 200-500 times faster than most of today's 3-D printers should be a game-changer for the manufacturing industry. The equipment manufacturer that first successfully introduces such a 3-D printer to the market should do phenomenally well, especially if metals capabilities are eventually added.

There is currently extremely little to no overlap in Cincinnati's target market and the target markets of 3D Systems and Stratasys, or the other publicly traded 3-D printer manufacturers. So, 3-D printing investors shouldn't consider Cincinnati a current threat, however, this could certainly change over time. I'll be following Cincinnati's progress, and will continue to keep investors updated.

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A Foolish thanks to Rick Neff for his time.


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