If you're following the 3D printing space, you might know that neither Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) nor 3D Systems has product or service offerings that fall into the "large-scale 3D printing" category, which is sometimes dubbed "big area additive manufacturing," or BAAM.
However, I've come across information that suggests that Stratasys is working on developing technology that will considerably expand the size of items its printers can produce. We might not be talking about sizes that fall into the "large-scale" category -- which isn't clearly defined anyway -- however, any notable production capacity size increase would be a positive and, perhaps, a step toward true BAAM.
First, a bit about the large-scale 3D printing space, and then Stratasys' news.
Big area additive manufacturing (BAAM)
Large-scale 3D printing is a topic that was flying under the radar until last year. The subject began bubbling up on the tech scene due to the partnership agreement signed last February between privately held Cincinnati, Inc. and Oak Ridge National Lab to develop the "BAAM" machine. This huge 3D printer will reportedly be 200-500 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger -- up to about one cubic meter in size -- than most of today's 3D printers.
Significant progress has been made over the past year. Last fall, the first BAAM machine made a splash in the press when it was used to produce the world's first 3D-printed electric vehicle, the "Strati," live at the International Manufacturing Technology Trade Show. This feat was repeated last month at the Detroit Auto Show.
Others are also working on large-scale 3D printing, such as defense giant Lockheed Martin, which has also worked with ORNL.
Stratasys' bigger ambitions
Several patent applications published in February 2014 suggest that Stratasys is working on developing a 3D printer based on FDM (fused deposition modeling) technology that can produce items considerably larger than its current printers can.
I can't be fully certain, as patent apps are notoriously difficult to read, but it looks like this might be accomplished by using a horizontal building mode instead of the traditional vertical one, which would allow the parts to extend beyond the printer's frame. In some cases, a printed scaffold would be used to support the items being made.
Here's the summary for patent application No. 20140048981 -- along with one diagram:
Additive manufacturing system with extended printing volume, and methods of use thereof
An additive manufacturing system for printing three-dimensional parts, the system comprising a heatable region, a receiving surface, a print head configured to print a three-dimensional part onto the receiving surface in a layer-by-layer manner along a printing axis, and a drive mechanism configured to index the receiving surface along the printing axis such that the receiving surface and at least a portion of the three-dimensional part [are] out of the heated region.
The related patent applications are:
- No. 20140052287: "Method for printing three-dimensional parts with additive manufacturing systems using scaffolds"
- No. 20140048980: "Additive manufacturing system with extended printing volume, and methods of use thereof"
Additionally, a key hire Stratasys made in the summer of 2013 supports the possibility that it's aiming to enter the larger-scale 3D printing space. Stratasys hired engineer Clint Newell, who is now the company's senior manager of global manufacturing solutions development. Newell came from Lockheed Martin, where he was the technical liaison on the company's BAAM project partnership with Oak Ridge National Lab.
Production speed and size of components capable of being produced are two main factors holding 3D printing back from being used in a greater array of manufacturing applications. Thus, any company that can successfully bring to market a 3D printer that overcomes one or both of these limitations should experience considerable demand and help expand the overall size of the potential 3D printing market.
The patent applications filed by Stratasys indicate that the company has plans to hit the 3D printing big-time (or at least, bigger) on its agenda. Whether or not its efforts prove successful is another matter. However, I'd not want to bet against Scott Crump, one of the patent filers. Crump invented fused deposition modeling, a technology that Stratasys had exclusive rights to until key patents expired. He, along with his wife, founded Stratasys, and he's currently the chairman of the board and chief innovation officer.