BAAM is just what its name implies: large-scale additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. This technology has recently started bubbling up on the scene, with large well-respected companies entering, or deepening their involvement in, this potentially game-changing niche. It remains to be seen how these new players will affect the leadership positions of 3D Systems and Stratasys in the 3-D printing sector, and it also remains to be seen if the two leading 3-D printing companies will develop or acquire BAAM technology.
Two of the biggest -- no pun intended -- stories on the BAAM front involve Cincinnati Incorporated and Lockheed Martin (LMT 2.05%). Both of these companies are working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Cincinnati Incorporated: a super-speedy big 3-D printer
In February, Cincinnati and Oak Ridge National Lab 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 -- than most of today's 3-D printers.
I wrote about this agreement back in February, and there's now some exciting news to report on this front. First, let me introduce some of you to Cincinnati, and the goal of the partnership between the two entities. Cincinnati, based in (you guessed it) the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, is one of the oldest machine tool manufacturers in the country. It's a global leader in manufacturing laser cutting systems and other metalworking machinery.
The ORNL-Cincinnati team's goal 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 in order to "strengthen domestic manufacturing of highly advanced components for the automotive, aerospace, appliance, robotics and many other industries."
This duo apparently hasn't let any grass grow underfoot. Cincinnati has delivered the motion system, which will act as a base for the BAAM machine, to ORNL; the company's proprietary linear motion system is the technology upon which the company built its successful laser cutting systems. Further, the company expects to have its super-speedy 3-D printer up and running by early September. According to a recent Local Motors' press release, Cincinnati's BAAM machine will be used to produce a 3-D printed vehicle at The International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, which runs Sept. 8-13. The IMTS is the largest and longest running manufacturing technology trade show in the U.S.
Cincinnati must be quite confident that its BAAM machine will not only be completed in just four and a half months, but will be also be functioning well, in order to commit to showing it off in front of all to see at this preeminent trade show. I'll be amazed if this printer is more than a first iteration on the way to achieving speeds 200-500 times faster than most of today's printers, and will be curious to learn what materials the systems is capable of printing.
If this partnership is ultimately successful at developing a 3-D printer that can produce thermoplastic components for industrial use as large as one cubic meter at the speeds noted above, it would be a game-changer in the manufacturing world. Tack on metals capabilities to such a system -- which I'd guess is next on the docket, given Cincinnati's expertise -- and we're talking nothing short of revolutionizing global manufacturing.
By "successful," I mean the usual, as well as overcoming one huge challenge: warping. All 3-D printing technologies involve heating the material to be printed, which often results in large printed parts warping because areas with varying thicknesses cool at different rates. ORNL's strengths will likely come into play here, as the lab has a premier materials science program, and materials will be one of the keys to scaling up 3-D printing for industrial uses.
Lockheed Martin: a 3-D printer to produce gargantuan components
Defense giant Lockheed Martin has been investing in and developing 3-D printing technologies in both metals and polymers since the 1990s. In 2005, the company began to explore the possibility of eliminating the fully enclosed build chamber in order to print components much larger than commercial 3-D printers could produce. Just last year, Lockheed teamed with Oak Ridge National Lab to further its progress in developing a big area additive manufacturing machine.
"Big" doesn't begin to describe the size of the components the Lockheed-ORNL team is aiming to produce with its BAAM. This partnership is working to scale up 3-D printing to produce parts up to 60-100 feet in size for the aerospace and other industries. The ultimate goal is to be able to print structures such as the wings of a large unmanned aircraft. To help accomplish this goal, the team's "vision is of a swarm of robots depositing layers of material in close synchronization with each other," according to Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
As to the warping issue I mentioned above, the Lockheed project plans to overcome this challenge by printing in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics that ORNL has reportedly specially developed for 3-D printing applications. ORNL has worked 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). So, it seems a good possibility that the CFRP being used is one in which Stratasys was also involved in developing.
The Foolish takeaway
Production speed and size of components capable of being produced are two of the primary factors holding 3-D printing back from moving beyond a technology used for prototyping and short-run production applications to one that's also used in mass manufacturing and a wider array of specialty production applications. Thus, the BAAM machines that Cincinnati and Lockheed Martin are separately working on developing have the potential to significantly expand the use of 3-D printing.
Investors in 3D Systems, Stratasys, and the other 3-D printer makers should stay attuned to the progress made by companies working on developing BAAM systems, as new entrants into the 3-D printing space could shakeup the sector's landscape.