A partnership agreement was signed last week that appears to have the potential to disrupt the leadership positions of 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) and Stratasys Ltd.(NASDAQ:SSYS) in the 3-D printing space, provide company for ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE) and Arcam (OTC:AMAVF) in the industrial niche of the 3-D printing sector, and competition for voxeljet (NYSE:VJET) in the large build-box space. On Feb. 17, the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab and Cincinnati Inc. signed an agreement to develop a 3-D printer that is 200-500 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger – up to about one cubic meter in size – than most of today's 3-D printers.
Here's what investors need to know about Uncle Sam's latest foray into the 3-D printing realm:
The partners and the goal
Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the largest science and energy national lab in the DOE's system, and frequently teams with commercial partners. (In fact, it's been teaming with Stratasys since 2012 to develop FDM carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics; FDM stands for "fused deposition modeling," one of Stratasys' two primary 3-D printing technologies.) Cincinnati Inc. is a privately held machine tool manufacturer, based in (you got it) the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. The 115-year-old company's expertise lies in the design and manufacturing of large-scale systems, especially laser cutting systems used in metal fabrication and powdered metal compacting presses used to produce high volume parts for the auto industry.
The goal of this teaming is to speed up the commercialization of a new 3-D printing machine that can print large polymer parts faster and cheaper than current technologies. Providing manufacturers access to such technology is meant to "strengthen domestic manufacturing of highly advanced components for the automotive, aerospace, appliance, robotics and many other industries."
The initial phase of the project involves incorporating 3-D printing technology into the machine base of Cincinnati Inc.'s laser cutting system to create a prototype, large-scale, 3-D printing system. The partners will then integrate a high-speed cutting tool, pellet feed mechanism, and control software into the system to provide additional capabilities. So, it sounds like this system will be able to be more easily integrated into a manufacturing line than most of today's 3-D printers.
This ORNL-Cincinnati Inc. project addresses two primary hurdles that are holding back 3-D printing from making faster inroads into mass manufacturing applications: production speed and size of components that can be made. There are other challenges, as well, such as material limitations, but there's been much progress in that area and more is anticipated.
The competitive space
Beyond the joint goal, investors should note Cincinnati Inc. CEO Andrew Jamison's goal: "Out of this developmental partnership with ORNL, CINCINNATI intends to lead the world in big area additive manufacturing machinery for both prototyping and production."
Certainly, investors in all five of the pure-play, publicly traded 3-D printer manufacturers – 3D Systems Corporation (DDD), Stratasys (SSYS), ExOne (XONE), Arcam (AMAVF), and voxeljet (VJET) – should monitor this project.
There's no doubt that industry juggernaut 3D Systems Corp. has ambitions to be a player in the mass manufacturing realm. In November, 3D Systems Corp. announced that it was partnering with Google on Project Ara. The goal of Project Ara is to create a large-scale 3-D printing manufacturing platform capable of producing customizable open-source modular smartphones. Now, that's "small area" manufacturing, of course, but it's possible that 3D Systems could be eyeing the "big area" (more often referred to as "broad area") manufacturing space, too. It seems likely that Stratasys, which has traditionally been more commercially focused than 3D Systems, could have plans to enter this space, too.
While ExOne and Arcam are both solely involved in the industrial 3-D printing market, neither have plastics capabilities, so there's currently no direct overlap between their printers and Cincinnati Inc.'s planned printer. Additionally, Arcam's not focused on the larger build box space. Voxeljet, on the other hand, does make printers with polymer printing capabilities, and specializes in printers with large build boxes. That said, voxeljet's systems are used to produce plastic components primarily for the commercial, rather than industrial, sector. It would seem that the ORNL-Cincinnati Inc. 3-D printer will likely be using more heavy-duty thermoplastics than voxeljet uses, given that it's targeting the industrial sector.
If ORNL and Cincinnati Inc. are successful with this project, I'd imagine it's almost a sure thing that the company goes on to develop metals printing capabilities for its large-area printer. After all, Cincinnati Inc.'s expertise is largely in producing metal-working machines.
Foolish final thoughts
A 3-D printer that can produce polymer components for the auto, aerospace, and other industries as large as one cubic meter at speeds 200-500 times faster than most of today's 3-D printers will be a game-changer for the manufacturing industry. Tack "metals printing capabilities" onto that same printer and it should be nothing short of revolutionary for the manufacturing world.
The equipment manufacturer that first successfully introduces such a 3-D printer to the market should do phenomenally well. Conversely, other 3-D printer manufacturers would likely see their growth potential curtailed.
I'll be following this project, and will keep investors up to date.