Undoubtedly, the Holy Grail of 3-D printing will be achieved when it fundamentally changes how the world manufactures just about everything. Before this far-off day can become a reality, 3-D printing technology needs to advance to the point where it rivals traditional manufacturing in terms of speed, scale, cost, and ability to print in a range of materials and colors.
Until now, it wasn't possible for a 3-D printer to handle both multi-material and full-color print jobs at the same time. Luckily, Stratasys' (SSYS 0.08%) recently announced Objet500 Connex3 printer has officially changed that, being the world's first 3-D printer capable of handling multi-material, full-color prints at the same time. Naturally, this development isn't welcome news for self-asserted 3-D printing leader, 3D Systems (DDD -1.95%).
A cut above
Thanks to its triple-jetting 3-D printing technology, the Connex3 can manufacture over 500 "digital" plastic material combinations on the fly, and objects can be printed in as many as 46 colors during a print job. Materials range from rubber-like, to rigid engineering plastics, to transparent plastics, to high-temperature plastics, to everything in between. To give you an idea of the Connex3's capabilities, a pair of glasses with transparent or tinted lenses can be printed as one finished object.
Because virtually zero post-processing is required for 3-D printed objects on the Connex3, it sets an entirely new precedent for the speed and quality of rapid product iterations. As a result, designers can spend significantly more time and less money improving their designs.
Why 3D Systems should be worried
Back in December, 3D Systems introduced its upcoming line of industrial 3-D printers, including the ProJet 4500 and ProJet 5500X. The ProJet 4500 can print in nearly 1 million colors, pixel by pixel, using its proprietary ColorJet technology, and requires zero post processing. The ProJet 5500X uses a proprietary multijet-printing technology, allowing it to print in different materials pixel by pixel in varying shades of monochrome and translucent plastics, in varying strengths.
At the time, I argued that 3D Systems' new industrial printers were such a compelling line-up that it could potentially take market share away from competitors. While that may be the case in certain 3-D printing verticals, the Objet500 Connex3 will likely prevent 3D Systems from establishing itself as the leader on the multi-material and full-color front.
The best of both worlds
Unless the end user requires more than 46 colors to be printed in a single job, it's extremely likely Stratasys' Objet500 Connex3 becomes the poster child for full-color multi-material 3-D printing. The Connex3 offers nearly the same build volume as 3D Systems' ProJet 5500x, almost double the build volume of the ProJet 4500, but combines the best of both worlds in one package. For these reasons, Stratasys has a tremendous competitive advantage over 3D Systems because its product eliminates the need to own separate, costly, and completely incompatible 3-D printers.
At the end of the day, 3-D printing's biggest strength is its ability to rapidly iterate much faster than traditional prototyping methods. This allows designers and engineers to spend more time improving upon their designs, and less time waiting for prototypes. Customers that integrate the Object500 Connex3 into their design process stand to save significant time and money compared to other 3-D printing solutions. For a mere $330,000, consider Stratasys' latest and greatest 3-D printer a steal, and also an investment in productivity gains.