Much to 3D Systems' (NYSE:DDD) dismay, TNO, an academic-style research organization based in the Netherlands, has developed a functional "racetrack" 3D printer, whereby a print bed visits various print head stations, boasting an increase in print speeds by 10 times compared to stand-alone systems. Last June, 3D Systems teased the world with an extremely similar high-speed, continuous fab-grade 3D printer concept that it plans to introduce later this year, claiming it's up to 50 times faster than existing jetting technology. Now, it's clear that 3D Systems isn't the only organization pursuing increased 3D printing productivity.
In the following video, 3D printing specialist Steve Heller interviews René Houben, senior rapid manufacturer researcher at TNO, about the racetrack 3D printer the organization has developed.
A full transcript follows the video.
Steve Heller: Steve Heller here. I'm joined today with René Houben of TNO, a research center for 3D printing based out of the Netherlands, is that correct?
René Houben: Yes, that's correct.
Heller: Let's talk a little bit about what TNO does, on a high level, and then we'll get into the exciting thing that you guys are introducing.
Houben: Yes, that's good. TNO is a Dutch research organization, independent, focusing on a very broad range of applications, and also technology ranges from building and environments to high-tech systems and materials, even to defense.
In this technology we're developing right here, we're in the high-tech systems and materials section of it.
Heller: Tell me more about this. This racetrack design has got my attention. I want to know what it is, what it does, what its plans are. I know you're a research firm, so you're looking for licensers, you're looking for co-collaborators. Let's talk about this platform and what its purpose is.
Houben: Yes, that's a good question. The main advantage of this system, I think that's most important to understand correctly. Some people see it and think, "What's the difference? What does it add extra?"
When you look at a lot of these current additive manufacturing [3D printing] processes, they're very sequential. They first deposit a layer of powder, second they do some preheating, third they finally do some printing or some laser sintering; all sequential steps, next behind each other.
You can imagine, each process step is in fact waiting on the other process steps to finish. That is an enormous lack of time. All this time you're not producing, you're not building.
That's in fact what this design is trying to use, to use all these deposition systems [3D printers] or manufacturing systems to their full extent. Instead of having a system which is stationary for 90% of the time, let's use it for 90% and suddenly you increase the speed and productivity of such a system to an extreme extent.
This demonstration system, as we have it right now, is up to 10 times faster than comparable systems. Not by adding an enormous amount of print heads; it's the same amount of print heads -- state of the art, normal technology -- but implemented in a more efficient manner.
Heller: How does it work with the print heads? Since you're a research firm, you're obviously borrowing print heads from other companies. Do you take a Stratasys print head or maybe a 3D Systems print head, put them together and see what happens?
How does this work? The research of this, how does this all come together?
Houben: In this case, we do not buy a Stratasys print head or an Objet print head, but we buy from the source itself. In this case, industrial graphical print heads, identical to what these other companies are using at this stage as well.
We are not developing these modules, but we are implementing these modules on such a platform -- and not only implementing, because when you do this in such a manner, you suddenly notice you use the systems differently.
That's in fact where the research part takes its role, because when you're suddenly using such a print head for 90% of the time instead of 10%, you're processing an enormous amount of material and a lot of difficulties occur which need to be overcome.
The same when you go as fast as you see here right now, up to two meters a second, or with droplet demand systems, four meters a second. The time between printing and the next layer of printing, the curing time available, is suddenly very short so you have to adapt your system to be able to cope with these challenges.
Heller: What do you think is the killer application for this system? Where do you think, in manufacturing, it's going to really shine?
Houben: That's a very difficult question because it's applicable on a number of different AM [additive manufacturing] technologies.
In the concept, we demonstrated inkjet printing -- direct inkjet manufacturing -- but you can also implement, for instance, powder carriages driving in circles. You can do powder bed printing. You can also do laser sintering on the fly, in a continuous manner, with such a system.
Depending on which technology you will be implementing, you will have different market opportunities.
One of the examples we're working on right now is, for instance, we're trying to add powder and laser sintering in such a combination. In that case, you can think of printing [orthopedic] insoles, for instance.
Currently, you already see some of these applications on the market right now, using state-of-the-art equipment. But you see the price level is relatively high, compared to what, for instance, [health] insurance companies are willing to pay for them.
With such a system, you can suddenly speed up the process with a factor of 10, also hoping to lower the price significantly so you can get in a business-case situation where it's even applicable by [health] insurance companies.
Heller: In terms of materials, then, you mentioned laser sintering. Are you thinking more of the thermoplastic side of it, or the metal side of it?
Houben: First, start with the thermoplastic side. Metals may be in the future. I think there are possibilities, but I think that's a little bit further away.
Heller: How far away are we actually seeing this product maybe reaching manufacturers' floors?
Houben: It's depending on who's willing to pay, and who's willing to take the effort in going further. Since we're a research organization, we build this machine as a demonstration to show people it's not just fiction. It can really be built. It can really increase the speed to such an extent.
We're now looking for companies to jointly co-develop further into an industrial application. The faster they step in, I would almost say, the faster we can get it to the market.
Heller: I see. Thank you so much for your time today, René.
Houben: Thank you.
Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.