In order to make Google's highly customizable and modular smartphone concept Project Ara a reality, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) was tasked with creating a "factory from the future." This entailed inventing a continuous high-speed 3-D printing assembly line to accommodate creating customized modular smartphone components on a larger scale. Although the manufacturing platform didn't exist at the time, 3D Systems delivered a working prototype in less than a year of its official partnership with Google.
No small feat
Last November, when 3D Systems' partnership with Google was announced, "high-speed" and "3-D printer" weren't often found in the same sentence. By nature, 3-D printing is a layer-by-layer additive manufacturing process, which inherently makes speed a major shortcoming of the technology. In order to boost production output to where thousands of customized parts can be efficiently produced each day for Project Ara, 3D Systems had to completely reimagine how it approached 3-D printing. Ultimately, 3D Systems opted for a high-speed track system where print beds move from print head to print head, enabling modular components to be made out of a variety of materials, including ones with conductive properties, in a matter of minutes. 3D Systems touts that its "racetrack" approach supports 3-D printing speeds 50 times faster than existing jetting technology.
Because 3D Systems can take what it learns from Project Ara and apply it to a host of other manufacturing applications, it opens up the potential for 3D Systems to claim additional market share on the manufacturing floor. Industry watchers like Wohlers Associates believe that 3-D printing continues to offer "tremendous untapped potential, especially in custom and short-run part production," because a company may spend 5%-10% on design and prototyping, but the remaining 90%-95% is spent on production.
Undoubtedly, a manufacturing platform that offers continuous, high-speed fab-grade printing capabilities would position 3D Systems for tremendous growth potential in the much larger and less saturated manufacturing segment of the 3-D printing industry. Because it's almost certain that 3D Systems will patent this 3-D printing manufacturing platform, the company will also likely enjoy a first-mover advantage over the competition for years to come.
With the promise of 50 times faster print speeds, 3D Systems may have created a massive opportunity for itself in the coming years to grow its manufacturing market share. Going forward, 3D Systems investors should look forward to EuroMold 2014 this November, when 3D Systems officially debuts this manufacturing platform to the public. Until then, sit tight and look forward to additional teasers about the platform.