NASA Just Blasted Through One Huge 3D Printing Technological Challenge

NASA's breakthrough should turbocharge metal 3D printing's disruption of traditional manufacturing.

Aug 23, 2014 at 12:22PM


Source: NASA.

If you're following 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), or the 3D printing space in general, you're likely aware of the main hurdles that are holding back 3D printing from making faster inroads into the manufacturing environment. These include speed, materials capabilities, and built-in quality assurance measures. NASA just overcame one huge part of the "materials capabilities" challenge by 3D printing the first real-life composite part -- a mirror mount made of several different alloys.

Let's look at NASA's accomplishment and its potential implications.

3D printing mission accomplished
Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and Penn State have developed a 3D printing process that transitions from one metal or alloy to another as a single object is being printed. This enabled them to 3D print a spacecraft mirror mount that is composed of several different alloys.

NASA's accomplishment marks the first time 3D printing has been used to produce a single object made of different metals or alloys, according to John Paul Borgonia, a JPL mechanical engineer. Gradient alloys have been created in the past, though they've been limited to research and development settings.

Why would NASA (or others, for that matter) need to make such a machine part in this manner? Its press release says it well:

Say you want a metal object where you would like the ends to have different properties. One side could have a high melting temperature and the other a low density, or one side could be magnetic and the other not. Of course, you could separately make both halves of the object from their respective metals and then weld them together. But the weld itself may be brittle, so that your new object might fall apart under stress. That's not a good idea if you are constructing an interplanetary spacecraft, for example, which cannot be fixed once it is deployed.

This new technique involves depositing layers of metal on a rotating rod, which allows for transitioning the metals from the inside out. The traditional 3D printing technique involves adding layers from bottom to top to create an object. A laser -- or sometimes an electric beam -- melts the metal powder to create the layers.

"We're taking a standard 3D printing process and combining the ability to change the metal powder that the part is being built with on the fly," Douglas Hofmann, a JPL researcher and visiting associate at Caltech, said in the press release. "You can constantly be changing the composition of the material."

One huge leap for 3D printing technology
NASA's accomplishment removes one huge hurdle that has been holding back metal 3D printing from increased use in production applications, as many components are composed of more than one metal or alloy. When we narrow this down to low-run specialty production applications, the obstacle removed is even bigger. That's because production speed -- another major complication -- doesn't matter much when making just one or a few very high-end specialty components, such as NASA might produce for a spacecraft.


Source: NASA.

According to NASA, future space missions might incorporate parts made using this new technique. The auto and commercial aerospace industries might also find it useful, noted Hofmann. So it seems likely that this new 3D printing technology could increase the already out of this world growth projections for the 3D printing industry. According to the 2014 Wohlers Report -- widely considered the gold standard on the industry -- revenue for the market grew by 35% year over year to approximately $3 billion in 2013. Wohlers projects that the market will explode to $10.8 billion in 2021. Morgan Stanley is even more optimistic, as its bull scenario predicts the 3D printing industry to be worth $21 billion by 2020.

The press release included no information regarding the specific 3D printer used to produce the multialloy component. I'd assume that NASA started with a standard model and modified it. The release did mention "lasers," so it seems a printer based on selective laser sintering was used, rather than one using electron beam melting technology. 3D Systems is the only publicly traded company that makes metal printers that use laser sintering technology. However, some well-regarded private companies also make these types of metal printers. Germany-based EOS is frequently cited as a very high-quality player in this space. Arcam (NASDAQOTH:AMAVF) is the only company that makes metal printers that use EBM tech, which is a patent-protected proprietary technology. 

The threat NASA's new technology presents to 3D Systems, Strayasys, and the other 3D printing companies is unknown at this point. I'll be following this story to see if we can learn what model printer was used, what's the patent situation, and if NASA has been partnering or plans to partner with any 3D printing companies on this technology. Based on the limited information available, my initial take is that the method NASA used sounds general enough that other 3D printing companies will be able to use a similar method to produce systems that are also capable of printing in multialloys. 

Bringing it all home... or back to Earth
Demand for 3D printers that can print in metals is in the relatively early stages, and we're on the cusp of an incredible growth trajectory. While it's too soon to say how NASA's new development might alter the 3D printing competitive landscape, it seems highly likely that it will help turbocharge the technology's disruption of traditional manufacturing.

If you're a believer in investing in megatrends like 3-D printing, don't miss this
The plastic in your wallet is about to go the way of the typewriter, the VCR, and the 8-track tape player. When it does, a handful of investors could stand to get very rich. A new presentation reveals the full story on why your credit card is about to be worthless -- and highlights one little-known company sitting at the epicenter of an earth-shaking movement. Its stock is up more than 100% over the last year, but it's still early in the game. Click here for full details.

Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.

Compare Brokers