3D Systems Plans 50X Speed Increase for Google's Project Ara

3D Systems' high-speed, continuous 3-D printing platform could be a game-changer.

Beth McKenna
Beth McKenna
Jun 13, 2014 at 10:01AM

Given the bruising 3D Systems' (NYSE:DDD) stock has taken this year, investors should surely welcome some good news. The largest 3-D printing company by market cap told analysts at its investor day event on Tuesday that it's on track in developing a continuous, high-speed 3-D printing manufacturing platform for Project Ara. This project involves a teaming with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) to produce customizable, open-source, modular smartphones, and is expected to launch in 2015.

Project Ara is full speed(y) ahead
We knew 3D Systems was on schedule back in April, as it told analysts so during its first-quarter conference call, and it was what I considered to be one of the top takeaways from the call. The bigger news coming out of its investor day is that 3D Systems said that it expects the platform it's developing for Project Ara to be 50 times as fast as current systems.

Project Ara's modular smartphone components. Source: 3D Systems

How does 3D Systems plan to rev up speed this much? The company explained this in a blog post:

This methodology breaks away from the "reciprocating platform" of many contemporary 3D printers. "Reciprocating" refers to the coordinated motion of the print platform and the print head, leading to frequent acceleration and deceleration, which ultimately adds to the overall print time. For more productive print rates (of millions and hopefully billions of units), we're creating a continuous motion system around a racetrack architecture that will allow the module shells to move in a continuous flow with additional "off ramps" for various finishing steps, including inserts and other module manipulations.

Production speed is one 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. So the super-speedy platform that 3D Systems is developing has the potential to significantly expand the use of 3-D printing.

Beyond Project Ara to other opportunities
Whether or not Google's Project Ara is successful shouldn't matter that much for 3D Systems. Sure, it would be great if folks snap up Google's modular phones in a manner akin to the original iPhone mania, as that would likely guarantee 3D Systems a longer-term partnering with the big G. 

Even if Ara flops, however, 3D Systems should win big if this platform functions very well. This is because after it completes the platform for Project Ara, 3D Systems plans to commercialize it for use in other manufacturing applications. CEO Avi Reichental said during 3D System's first quarter conference call that the company believes that its high-speed, continuous 3-D printing platform will "have wide applications into a variety of both industrial and consumer goods type manufacturing applications."

Remember, this is expected to be not only a fast platform, but also one that will be able to print in multimaterials. So this platform could be an absolute game-changer, and lead to 3-D printing disrupting mass manufacturing just as it has disrupted prototyping and, for certain applications, short-run production.

Speed: the current 3-D printing frontier
3D Systems isn't alone in working to break the speed barrier in 3-D printing. In February, privately held Cincinnati Inc. signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab to develop a 3-D printer that is 200-500 times faster, and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger, than most of today's 3-D printers. The team's goal is to speed up the commercialization of a new 3-D printing machine that can print large polymer parts faster and more cheaply than current technologies in order to "strengthen domestic manufacturing of highly advanced components for the automotive, aerospace, appliance, robotics and many other industries."

Cincinnati has already delivered its "alpha" big area additive manufacturing, or BAAM, machine to ORNL. In fact, the company displayed parts produced by this huge 3-D printer at RAPID, one of the premier trade shows for the 3-D printing industry, which just wrapped up on Thursday.

The good news for investors in 3D Systems is that the BAAM machine will only be able to print in polymers -- at least initially -- and will be used for large-scale applications. It has a giant build box size of about 6'7" by 13'1" by 2'10". So Cincinnati's machine won't present competition for 3D System's high-speed, continuous platform, as it doesn't have multimaterial-printing capabilities, and isn't suited to produce smaller items that have a higher level of detail. At this point, there doesn't appear to be any competition for the platform that 3-D Systems is developing, which could turn out to be terrific news for investors.