Two weeks ago, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) was awarded two contracts funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory, worth over a combined $1 million, to "develop advanced aerospace and defense 3D printing manufacturing capabilities at convincing scale."
Administered by America Makes, the national additive manufacturing innovation institute, 3D Systems will collaborate with defense heavyweights Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Honeywell, and Northrop Grumman to develop the ability to monitor 3D print jobs at the layer level for its metal- and plastic-based selective laser sintering 3D printers -- a capability many industry experts believe to be a "holy grail" solution that will aid in the future adoption of 3D printing. Consequently, 3D Systems investors may view this as a great opportunity for the company to develop differentiated intellectual property from its competition.
The fine print
On the first project, 3D Systems will partner with the University of Delaware's Center for Composite Materials, Sandia National Lab, and Lockheed Martin to build out of the capabilities of its plastic-based selective laser sintering, or SLS, 3D printers. The goal of the project will be to integrate predictive technologies into 3D Systems' plastic SLS printers in order to gain the ability to dynamically monitor print jobs at the layer level. If successful, it will usher in a new era of 3D printing quality assurance that would help aerospace manufacturers more easily validate that 3D printed parts are consistent and accurate -- an extremely important consideration when 3D-printing mission-critical components with complicated structures.
The second project is very similar to the first, except that 3D Systems will be partnering with the Applied Research Laboratory of Pennsylvania State University, Honeywell, and Northrop Grumman, and instead of focusing on plastic-based SLS printers, it seeks to gain the same layer-by-layer monitoring capabilities with its line of direct-metal 3D printers. The goal here is to ensure as they're being printed that metal 3D-printed parts are going to be flight-worthy.
Filling an important gap
Unfortunately, there's very little technology built into current-generation 3D printers that alerts an engineer when something is going wrong during a print job. Companies like General Electric (NYSE:GE) have to spend significant time, energy, and money to ensure their upcoming 3D-printed jet engine components are accurate after the object is printed.
In other words, being able to monitor print jobs one layer at a time, in real time, with objective evidence would reduce the burden on aerospace and other industrial manufacturers qualifying 3D-printed parts for mission-critical applications. It would also likely drive adoption for 3D printing to be used more in direct manufacturing applications because it'll give manufacturers a higher degree of confidence that parts with complex internal structures are being made to exact specifications.
The bigger picture
GE's Christine Furstoss and Steve Rengers believe that the future role 3D printing will play in manufacturing will likely rely heavily on the ability to perform quality assurance in real time with objective data. Considering that GE is one of the largest adopters of 3D printing technology in the industry, and it has plans to 3D-print up to 45,000 fuel nozzles a year for its upcoming Leap jet engine by 2020, gaining this technological capability could give 3D Systems a major competitive advantage against its 3D printing peers in the area of larger-scale manufacturing.
However, as we've seen in the past with other high-profile partnerships that 3D Systems has entered, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that it will be successful in reaching the projects' goals. Still, investors should be pleased by the fact that 3D Systems has landed two notable contracts with big-time defense companies, which validates the company's technological expertise to some degree.