3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) kicked off the International Manufacturing Trade Show (IMTS) in Chicago this week with a presentation outlining how it is positioning itself to capitalize as 3D printing shifts from being a primarily prototyping technology to one that's used in a wider range of manufacturing applications. 

A key component of 3D Systems' strategy is its new technology, Figure 4, which the company claims is up to 50 times faster than conventional stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing systems. Figure 4 is a robotic, modular, SLA 3D printing system designed for the production of plastic parts.  

Here's what you should know.

 A 3D-printed object rising from a vat of photopolymer (a liquid polymer that solidifies upon exposure to  light). Image source: 3D Systems.

Figure 4 3D printing technology

Figure 4, unveiled earlier this year and recently updated, gets its name from the Fig. 4 illustration in 3D Systems founder Chuck Hull's original patent filing for SLA in 1984. 

SLA is a photopolymerization 3D printing technology, meaning it uses light to harden polymers (a materials class that includes plastics). Rival Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) also has a well-established photopolymerization technology -- its proprietary PolyJet -- but doesn't offer a super-fast process, like Figure 4. 

Figure 4 sports four key features that 3D Systems believes will enable it to succeed as a manufacturing technology that's a "viable and intelligent alternative to injection molding":

  • Fast speed 
  • Ability to be incorporated into an automated production process
  • In-line parts inspection capabilities
  • Vastly increased materials capabilities

Speed, materials capabilities, automation, in-line inspection, and surface quality are widely considered to be the main hurdles holding 3D printing back from making greater inroads into manufacturing applications beyond very short-run ones.

3D Systems has housed this technology in discrete modules, enabling it to be placed into automated assembly lines, and integrated with secondary processes, including material recovery, washing, curing, and various finishing procedures.

Robotic arms lifting 3D-printed objects (circled in red) from vats. Image source: 3D Systems.

The latest Figure 4 development involves the incorporation of automatic, in-line 3D inspection of parts for closed-loop manufacturing.

3D Systems claims that it has made materials breakthroughs with Figure 4 tech, primarily stemming from the fact that a greatly accelerated photopolymerization process means that liquid polymers are not sitting in vats for nearly as long as they do in the standard SLA process. This opens up the possibilities of using material chemistries that don't have to be nearly as stable. 

Start-up Carbon's Continuous Liquid Interface Production 3D printing technology also uses a super-speedy photopolymerization process -- in fact, 3D Systems' Figure 4 sounds extremely similar to CLIP. 

How does Figure 4 stack up to the competition?

In May, HP lnc. (NYSE:HPQ) launched the Jet Fusion 3D 3200, powered by its proprietary Multi Jet Fusion technology, and in April, Carbon launched the M1, powered by its proprietary CLIP.

HP claims its 3D printer is up to 10 times faster than printers powered by fused deposition modeling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS). Carbon couldn't provide relative speed claims regarding its M1 because it uses proprietary resins. However, we know CLIP was about 25 to 100 times faster than PolyJet, SLS, and SLA to produce the same object when tested last year. Here are the results of third-party tests commissioned by Carbon, which involved producing the same 51-millimeter-diameter complex part made of an elastomeric material: 

Image source: Carbon.

CLIP's exact relative speed advantages in the above comparison are:

  • 27.7 times faster than PolyJet
  • 32.3 times faster than SLS
  • 106 times faster than SLA

3D Systems claims that Figure 4 is "up to 50 times" faster than conventional SLA. The "up to" makes true comparisons impossible. We'll be liberal and use the maximum rate. This would mean that Figure 4 would be able to produce that same comparison object in 13.8 minutes (SLA's time/50). This makes Figure 4 very speedy, but only about half as fast as CLIP.

Now let's bring HP into the mix. HP uses FDM and SLS as its speed benchmarks. We can assume that the higher end of HP's "up to 10 times faster" claim refers to SLS, the slower of the two benchmark techs. Again, we'll be generous and use the maximum rate This would mean that HP's tech would be able to produce that same object in 21 minutes (SLS's time/10). This makes HP's tech slower than Figure 4 and slower yet than CLIP.  

The caveats are considerable. We only compared the speeds at which the various new techs can likely produce one specific object. Relative speeds will vary depending upon factors such as part complexity and material. Moreover, factors other than speed matter considerably for companies when choosing a 3D printer.  

The proof will be in the partnerships

3D Systems' Figure 4 appears to be an impressive, speedy new technology that could enable the company to capitalize as 3D printing makes inroads into a wider range of manufacturing applications. While Figure 4 doesn't appear to have a speed advantage over Carbon's CLIP, it does sport other features -- ability to be incorporated into an automated production process and in-line parts inspection capabilities -- that appear to be unique among the super-fast 3D printing techs at this point. 

The proof will be in the pudding: Investors should watch to see if any notable companies partner with 3D Systems on its Figure 4 initiative. 

On its end, Carbon just announced that it raised $81 million in an extended series C funding round, which included new strategic investors and partners GE Ventures -- General Electric's venture capital arm -- and BMW.This brings Carbon's total raise to $222 million.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.