3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) told analysts at its investor day event last Tuesday that it expects the high-speed, continuous fabrication-grade 3-D printing platform that it's developing for Project Ara to be 50 times as fast as current systems. And now the largest 3-D printing company by market cap has released more details about its super-speedy platform -- as well as a video.
Customizable, modular cell phones, and beyond
Project Ara involves a teaming with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) to produce customizable, open-source, modular smartphones. Given Ara's set to launch in 2015, investors in 3D Systems can likely expect a continuous stream of information on the status of this project throughout the rest of this year.
Certainly, the partnering with Google acted as the impetus for 3D Systems to develop its high-speed 3-D printing platform. The bigger picture, however, is that Ara could be the platform's jumping board to a wide array of manufacturing applications. So, this platform could lead to 3-D printing disrupting mass manufacturing, just as it has disrupted prototyping and has begun to disrupt short-run production. 3D Systems' platform seems a perfect fit for producing customizable products. That's because making these types of products using traditional manufacturing techniques wouldn't be cost-effective for all but very high-end products, given the tooling costs involved.
As for the speed of the platform, most likely "50 times as fast as current systems" doesn't mean much to many people. A better way to think of this speed is that it's comparable to the speed of traditional injection molding operations.
A video is worth more than a 1,000 words
We previously learned from 3D Systems that its platform will be a "continuous motion system around a racetrack architecture that will allow the (cell phone) module shells to move in a continuous flow with additional "off ramps" for various finishing steps."
The company's latest release provides a better picture of how the platform works:
Whereas 3D printers typically utilize a moving printhead on a stationary bed, the high-speed, continuous fab-grade printer puts the print bed in motion on speedy track system under a set of stationary printheads. The result is a 3D printing assembly line: many products printing at once, all unique, all in full color and multi materials. Parts in varying phases of completion move in a continuous flow. When a part is done, it exits the track for post-processing and a new print bed takes its place.
I'm on board 3D Systems' belief that this platform "opens up the possibility of just-in-time, high volume, flexible additive manufacturing using the company's precision Stereolithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) advanced manufacturing printers, enabling manufacturers to produce functional, precision parts in seconds, without the need for tooling or a lengthy supply chain."
Of course, the proof will be in the pudding -- or in the custom modules -- and we'll have to wait and see how well the platform actually performs. Given 3D Systems' expertise and Google's deep pockets, though, I think it's almost safe to say that the platform will eventually perform well.