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Move Over, Carbon! 3D Systems Ships Its First Super-Fast "Figure 4" 3D Printing Production Platform

By Beth McKenna - Updated Nov 22, 2017 at 6:37AM

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Reportedly more than 50 times faster than conventional SLA 3D-printing systems and fully automatable, Figure 4 is 3D Systems' entry into the race to disrupt the manufacturing industry.

The term "March Madness" apparently applies to competition among 3D printing companies as well as to college basketball teams.

3D Systems (DDD 0.48%) announced on Monday that it recently shipped its first new speedy 3D printing production platform, Figure 4, to a customer. The company also unveiled a Figure 4 platform designed for dental applications, which is expected to be available for delivery in the fall.

This news follows just two business days after venture capital-backed Carbon launched its second 3D printer, the M2, along with its super-fast 3D-printing production platform called SpeedCell

Here's what 3D printing investors should know.

Figure 4 platform.

Image source: 3D Systems.

Figure 4

Figure 4 is a modular and automatable 3D printing system designed for the production of polymer (which includes plastics) parts. It's powered by a form of stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing technology, with 3D Systems touting that Figure 4 is more than 50 times faster than conventional SLA systems. 

3D Systems said in its press release that it recently shipped the first Figure 4 platform to a "Fortune 50 industrial customer." The company also said that it "plans to ramp customer-specific shipments throughout the second half of 2017." This, of course, would be good news for investors, as 3D Systems along with Stratasys (SSYS 2.13%) and most of the smaller 3D-printing players have struggled to grow revenue over the last two years. These struggles on the top line have negatively affected the companies' bottom lines. 

Figure 4 is modular, which means it can be customized to meet a customer's needs. Customers can order a simple single-print engine configuration through to a fully automated system with 16-plus print engines. Automated configurations integrate such features as material delivery systems and post-processing operations into the platform.

Container of NextDent material, 3D-printed mold of a patient's upper or lower teeth, and 3D-printed crowns.

Image source: 3D Systems.

3D Systems' Figure 4-based manufacturing platform designed specifically for dental applications will reportedly be available this fall. It's not surprising that the company has tailored a platform to meet the needs of the dental industry, given its acquisition in January of NextDent's portfolio of 12 materials that have regulatory approvals in numerous countries. The company claims in the press release that, compared with conventional manufacturing methods, this dental platform "is able to achieve improvements of up to 10 times in total cost of operations, along with significantly reduced fabrication times and far less material waste."  

CEO Vyomesh Joshi added, "Our system can print 20-30 crowns in fewer than 15 minutes, which is the same time it takes most milling solutions to produce just one single crown."

Competitors' speedy 3D-printing technologies

3D Systems' new SLA-on-steroids technology sounds quite similar to Carbon's super-fast proprietary Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology. Both are photopolymerization technologies, as they use a light source to harden polymer resin. 

Stratasys also has a proprietary photopolymerization technology, PolyJet. However, it does not offer a speedy version of PolyJet.

Along with Carbon, HP Inc. (HPQ 4.01%) launched its flagship 3D printer last year. HP also claims its 3D-printing technology, called Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), is considerably faster than leading 3D-printing technologies. MJF is a jetting technology, which builds on HP's legendary expertise in inkjet 2D printers.

The race to revolutionize manufacturing 

3D Systems' name on the glass front door of its corporate headquarters.

Image source: 3D Systems. 

As Joshi said in the press release, "Our breakthrough Figure 4 platform will revolutionize manufacturing by transforming production of both mass customized and complex end use parts with a compelling total cost of operations versus conventional methods." 

LIke 3D Systems, Carbon and HP Inc. are also aiming to disrupt the manufacturing industry with their respective speedy technologies. Indeed, speed has been a high hurdle holding 3D printing back from moving beyond a primarily prototyping application into production applications beyond extremely short-run ones involving high-cost specialty parts.  

Along with a couple of other factors, materials availability is another key barrier to 3D printing making more inroads into manufacturing applications. 3D Systems has previously said that it's made material breakthroughs, stemming from the fact that liquid polymers don't sit nearly as long in vats in the speedy Figure 4 process as they do in the standard SLA process. This opens up the possibilities for using chemistries that aren't as stable.

3D Systems' shipment of the first Figure 4 is a huge milestone. As with all new products, investors should gauge the success of Figure 4 based upon meaningful partnerships and customers. 

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