Following in General Electric's (NYSE:GE) footsteps, Rolls-Royce (NASDAQOTH:RYCEY) has begun testing 3-D printed parts for upcoming aircraft engines. Investors should think of this development as further confirmation that the 3-D printing revolution is slowly but surely inching toward its true calling: finished goods manufacturing.
Getting into the details
Like GE, Rolls-Royce wants to capitalize on how 3-D printing invites new design possibilities and efficiencies that are prohibited by conventional manufacturing methods. Thanks to the freedom 3-D printing offers, a design team can have a part made in any shape it likes, which could help reduce the overall weight of an aircraft engine, improve fuel efficiency, and free up any resources surrounding a conventionally made part's assembly process. Currently, Rolls-Royce will be focused on printing fuel nozzles and brackets and will utilize ceramic and metal printing technologies.
Technologies in focus
Given the strength requirements of airplane engines, Rolls-Royce is likely going to utilize selective laser sintering, or electron beam melting 3-D printing technology, because it is capable of creating highly dense parts strong enough to withstand the rigors of being inside a jet engine.
The additive manufacturing process is very similar between the two, which uses an extremely precise laser or similar electron beam to selectively heat and melt a bed of powder material layer by layer. Because this technology is so specialized, there are fewer than a handful of major players out there. On the selective laser sintering side, the biggest players are 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD)and EOS from Germany, which isn't publicly traded. On the electron beam melting side, Arcam AB (NASDAQOTH:AMAVF) owns the market.
What GE's playbook tells us
GE's ultimate goal is to 3-D print 45,000 fuel nozzles a year, but its current base of 35 printers from EOS and Arcam won't even come close to meeting this ambition. Instead of buying the 60-70 additional printers that could cost upward of $1 million each to meet its annual production goals, GE has instead opted to invest "tens of millions" in improving the 3-D printing supply chain to build out higher-capacity printers. In addition, GE is currently testing out printers from 3D Systems and Concept Laser, a smaller selective laser sintering player, to see if they will play a bigger part of GE's 3-D printing scale-up plans.
More than likely, Rolls-Royce will also have to work closely with 3-D printing companies to help meet the needs of its equally massive manufacturing operations. In the meantime, Rolls-Royce, like GE, will developing an expertise around 3-D printing and how it could benefit its operations.
The driving force of change
The demands of big industrial customers are likely going to be a major driving force of change in the 3-D printing industry. Consequently, 3-D printing companies that cater to these needs are likely well-positioned to benefit over the long term. Investors will likely be best served owning 3-D printing companies that have high exposure to the industrial sector, particularly in the finished goods segment.
At the end of the day, 3-D printing continues to gain momentum from the industrial sector because of the manufacturing innovation it brings to design, affordability, and efficiency. Companies like GE and Rolls-Royce stand to save billions of dollars across their operations over the next decade by implementing 3-D printing technologies. The Economist didn't call 3-D printing the Third Industrial Revolution for nothing.
Fool contributor Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of 3D Systems. It also owns shares of General Electric and has the following options: short January 2014 $20 puts on 3D Systems. 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.