Investors should read on if they like the sound of their investments maturing over the coming decade; according to IDTechEx, the 3D printing market will reach $40 billion by 2027.
Their research states that while 3D printing has been “used for the rapid production of prototypes for form and fit testing, applications are transitioning towards also functional testing of prototypes under working conditions, and further, the manufacture of final products.” So from the factory floor to the real world and home and school use, this timeline of 3D printing’s highs and lows take you from the 1980s all the way to the future.
In the early 80s Charles Hull invented stereolithography (SLA) and soon after Carl Deckard patented selective laser sintering (SLS).
Boeing (NYSE:BA) began 3D printing in the 1980s. Mike Vander Wel, head of equipment and tool engineering for Boeing Commercial Airplanes says: “We were pushing the envelope back then”, testing the limits of new technologies early on. He points out that before AM’d tooling enabled the company to accelerate design cycles, “it was long lead times to get parts and tooling to the factory floor, but with this technology we can turn around design concepts much faster.”
Flash forward to 2017, and the Ottawa Hospital has recently opened the first medical 3D printing program of its kind in Canada, in order to make prosthetic limbs relatively cheaply. Dr. Frank Rybicki, chief of medical imaging, says “3D printing has been an emerging technology for some time in other fields, such as aerospace or the automotive field, and now it’s coming to medicine”.
An expiration of a key patent in 2009 allowed many startups to offer inexpensive 3D printers for consumers. In 2013 retailer Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) started selling 3D printers made by 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), a landmark event propelling 3D printing into the mainstream, commercial market. But the desktop market died a death as consumer adoption was more complex than many realized. The high expectations were not well managed or helped by the media, who latched onto 3D printing, in a big way, in 2012. Headlines heralded the ‘third industrial revolution’ and talked of “the biggest single disruptive phenomenon to impact global industry”.
2016 saw large tech companies Hewlett Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and General Electric (NYSE:GE) enter the space. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology has put the company firmly on the 3D printing map. GE acquired two European companies specializing in 3D printing, Arcam AB and SLM Solutions. GE will use their recent additions’ resources and expertise to fashion aeroplane design, material and parts. GE even repair 3D printed engines with 3D printing.
A significant number of markets are adopting metal 3D printing. Lomiko Metals (TSXV:LMR) will provide graphite to Graphene 3D Lab (TSXV:GGG), who convert graphite to graphene and develop the latter for use in 3D printing. Lomiko owns about ten percent of Graphene 3D Lab. Graphene is not actually a metal; it is far stronger than steel and more conductive than copper. This makes it applicable to a wide range of clients in commercial, military and research sectors.
4D printing, where the fourth dimension is time, is the next threshold for additive manufacturing. This is particularly important in the medical industry, especially in designing devices implanted in the body, that need to adapt and change with the passing of time.
Next year, manufacturer Northrop Grumman’s (NYSE:NOC) drone will have its moment of truth. The ‘air system’ is a cross between a drone and a helicopter, known as TERN, or the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node. It has a GE engine so is likely 3D printed. TERN can fly both upwards and across and is being developed for the US Armed Forces, in particular the Navy. A further milestone for TERN is “full testing of the prototype at sea in late 2018.” This will involve landing onto a moving platform.
Over the past three decades, 3D printing practices have seen many enhancements and played many different roles. As Vander Wel says, the process is an “evolutionary, not a revolutionary” journey. Its time may be yet to come and investors might want to invest in a roundabout way, via industries using the technique, whether choosing the route of industrial, metal, pharmaceutical, retail or technology companies.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Emma Harwood, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: Lomiko Metals and Graphene 3D Lab are clients of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.