The romance of the new technology that has been called "additive manufacturing," but is better known as 3-D printing, is wearing off and it is now becoming more main-stream. This new technology has brought dreams of profitability because of better proficiency, reduced material waste, and faster and more efficient production times. Some of the larger companies that you may be familiar with as an investor are starting to invest some serious money in this technology. Let's take a look at some of the companies, especially General Electric (GE)
Here are a few examples of how it's becoming mainstream:
The automotive industry is using it to create parts such as cylinder heads, brake rotors, and rear axles. At Ford's (F) Beech Daly Technical Center in Dearborn, Michigan, these products are being made with an industrial 3-D printer in less time than it takes to manufacture in the traditional method. The 3-D printer saves about a month of production time compared to traditional casting. One day a customer may be able to come into a shop and order his/her parts for a car, having them manufactured right there.
Mattel (MAT) uses it strictly for design production. Imagine the difference in cost for a company like Mattel which used waxing and clay sculpture prototypes for the toys in the past. The use of 3-D printing is much faster and, needless to say, really cuts down on man hours.
General Electric (GE) is planning on using this technology to manufacture parts for the new LEAP jet engine that will be installed in Boeing and Airbus jets. Presently it uses 3-D printing as part of the designing process.
To show how serious GE is about this, it has opened a lab specifically designed for R&D that will transform 3-D printing from a concept to an anchor in its manufacturing process.
One example of how this technology could make GE more efficient is in its manufacturing of ultrasound equipment. General Electric manufactures imagers for high end and portable machines for major teaching hospitals. Imagers contain transducers, which is the part that actually touches your body. GE builds these complicated pieces and it's a hard process that hasn't changed over the years. When you have a piece that has to convert electric signals into ultrasound waves, it's no easy task. Additive manufacturing offered a simple platform to combine almost all the steps needed to manufacture and produce a transducer. The company is researching how to produce a number of different transducer designs on a single line, which was unheard of in the past. Certain designs that were thought up were considered impossible to create with the old manufacturing technique. With 3-D printing, those designs are now conceivable; in the future we might see multiple designs developed on the same system.
Not only is GE integrating 3-D printing into its manufacturing process, but it is also encouraging others to get involved in the 3-D printing process through contests.
There is one contest called "3-D Printing Design Quest" that asks participants to redesign brackets and hangers which hold jet engine components so that they are 30% lighter, but still meet the strength vibration requirements of the part. A contest like this is beneficial to GE and those who participate. For GE, creating a simple part that is just as strong but lighter-- like a bracket, could lead to the development of more complex parts. For the participant, it might mean the open door to become a supplier for a new part for GE. Both come out as winners.
3-D Printing Keeps Growing!
3-D printing became $1 billion industry 20 years after its inception, and is expected to reach $6 billion annually by 2017. It just keeps increasing. Major companies on the global market like Ford, General Motors (GM), and General Electric are seriously investing in this technology. I believe this technology is very important for an investor to follow. Not only will it make manufacturing more efficient, it should also make a company more profitable. It may be a bit premature to say this, but I believe this may benefit shareholders in companies that invest heavily in this technology in the future.