By: Ken Vartanian, Vice President of Marketing
Future historians may look back at 2012 as the year Additive Manufacturing went Main Street. Significant actions in both the public and private sectors elevated the strategic importance of Additive Manufacturing and exponentially raised awareness to its potential. In August, the “National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute” (NAMII) was established by President Obama as the first of fifteen institutes focused on revitalizing the US manufacturing base. With $70 million in public-private funding, NAMII is poised to accelerate implementation of Additive Manufacturing technologies within US manufacturing. In the private sector, 3D Systems continued its blistering pace of acquisitions adding 9 more companies to its holdings, while rival Stratasys merged with Israeli based Objet Ltd. These consolidations established Stratasys and 3D Systems as clear industry leaders with sufficient resources to drive further advancements in Additive Manufacturing. Throughout 2012 authoritative periodicals including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Economist published feature articles on Additive Manufacturing and its potential to transform how products ranging from cell phones to jet engines are produced. Some even described Additive Manufacturing technology as the “Third Industrial Revolution”. As a result of these activities, investor interest in Additive Manufacturing soared in 2012 driving Stratasys (SSYS) stock up over 150% and 3D Systems (DDD) up over 260%. Such financial performance is truly outstanding at any time let alone during an economic downturn.
But is this all just buzz or will Additive Manufacturing technology really transform how products are produced? To date, Additive Manufacturing systems offered by 3D Systems and Stratasys (aka 3D Printers), have been used primarily as rapid prototyping tools to additively manufacture plastic models for new design validation. However, last May an interesting development was revealed when Optomec and Stratasys announced the results of a joint development project to fully print an electro-mechanical device with Additive Manufacturing technology. Using an Optomec Aerosol Jet printer, conformal circuits, sensors and an antenna were printed on an aircraft wing which itself was printed using a Stratasys 3D printer. The project demonstrated the ability to print functional electronics onto complex-shaped structures enabling smaller, lighter weight, and higher performance devices. The project paves the way toward mass customization of fully printed end products. The chart below provides Optomec’s view of the current Additive Manufacturing technology landscape.
Metal Additive Manufacturing technologies such as Optomec’s LENS 3D Metal Printer and powder bed methods are maturing and being used for low volume production and repair of metal components used in the medical and aerospace industry. In addition to rapid prototyping applications, low cost 3D Printers are penetrating the home hobbyist market and may one day change how some consumer products are delivered. And Additive Manufacturing systems such as Aerosol Jet, used for printing electronics are poised to deliver enhanced high volume manufacturing capabilities for a plethora of applications ranging from displays, solar cells, and sensors. The merger of printed electronics and 3D printing will be remembered as another significant milestone towards the realization of the additive manufacturing vision.