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General Electric Plans to Launch the Mother Lode of Big Metal 3D Printers in 2018

General Electric (NYSE: GE) announced at the Paris Airshow last month that it's developing what appears to be the world's largest laser-based powder-bed fusion metal 3D printer. The machine will be tailored to the aerospace industry, though it will also be suitable for applications in the automotive, power, and oil and gas industries. 

Metal 3D printing is the fastest-growing space in the 3D printing industry, and powder bed-based technologies that use lasers predominate in the metal 3D printer realm. So this could be good news for the digital industrial giant, which entered the 3D printing supply market late last year, but could portend trouble for other players in the metal 3D printer market, including 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD).

Here's what you should know.

Image source: Getty Images.

General Electric's big metal 3D printer

GE's 3D printer will have a build volume of one cubic meter, with all three dimensions each one meter, or 1,000 mm, which is equivalent to about 3.28 feet. 

While this might not sound very big, it's huge for a laser powder-bed fusion metal 3D printer, very big for the broader "laser-powder" category (which includes laser-based "blown powder" technology), and large for metal 3D printers in general. Currently, Concept Laser -- the German company that GE bought a controlling stake in last last year -- seems to make the industry's largest 3D printer that uses a laser-based powder-bed technology. It has build-box dimensions of 800 mm x 400 mm x 500 mm, or about 2.6 ft. x 1.3 ft. x 1.6 ft. 

Here's what we know about GE's plans:

  • The technology demonstrator, called "Atlas," will be unveiled in November at the Formnext trade show in Frankfurt. Atlas, which will have at least two dimensions of one meter, builds upon GE technology, combined with Concept Laser's expertise in laser 3D printers. 

  • Companies collaborating with GE on the development of the 3D printer will receive beta versions of the machine by the end of this year.

  • The 3D printer (production version is not yet named) is slated to commercially launch next year, with initial deliveries targeted for late 2018. Its resolution and speed will equal or exceed those of metal 3D printers now on the market, and its build geometry will at least ultimately be customizable and scalable. 

  • The 3D printer will be designed to be used with multiple metals, including titanium and aluminum. 

Image source: GE.

GE's massive 3D printer business ambitions

The new 3D printer is being built by GE Additive, which is a business unit that was formed late last year at about the time that General Electric entered the 3D printing business by plunking down more than $1 billion to acquire controlling stakes in Concept Laser and another European metal 3D printing company. 

This move catapulted GE from being the world's largest user of metal 3D printing technologies to also becoming a major player in the metal 3D printing business. These purchases gave GE about 20% market share in the 3D printing equipment market, according to the company's 2016 letter to shareholders. GE said in its letter that it expects to grow its new additive business to $1 billion in equipment and service annual revenue by 2020, up from $300 million today. Moreover, it also expects its new business to save $3 billion to $5 billion of product cost across the company over the next 10 years. For context, the two largest publicly traded pure-play 3D printing companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys, took in revenue of $633 million and $672.5 million, respectively, in 2016. 

What GE's move means for 3D Systems 

Stratasys doesn't make metal 3D printers, while 3D Systems makes metal 3D printers that fall within the same laser-powder bed tech category as the big 3D printer that GE plans to launch. 3D Systems stopped disclosing the size of its metal business a while back, but we can probably safely assume that it still accounts for less than 10% of its total revenue.

GE's new 3D printer will further increase competition for 3D Systems, which views its metal 3D printer business as one of its future growth engines. Positively, however, GE's move will almost certainly increase the total market size for metal 3D printers. This could provide a tailwind for 3D Systems' metal 3D printer business, provided the company's offerings remain competitive from a technological and pricing standpoint.

Image source: Getty Images.

A footnote: Setting the record straight on GE's 3D printer claims

There's a lot of inaccurate information out there on this story, with GE to blame for much of it. Let's set the record straight:

  • GE's 3D printer will not be the world's largest metal 3D printer (or even the largest commercially available one), as claimed in GE Reports' June 20 article titled, as of this writing, "GE Is Building The World's Largest 'Additive' Machine For 3D Printing Metals." 
  • GE's printer will not be the largest laser-powder 3D printer (or even the largest commercially available one), as claimed in the company's June 22 press release titled, as of this writing, "GE Additive creating world's largest laser-powder additive machine." (We'll even pretend there are the ultra-important words "for metals" tacked onto this claim -- it's still inaccurate.)
  • Concept Laser does not make the world's largest metal 3D printer, as claimed in a video uploaded on June 2 by GE Reports titled, as of this writing, "Inside Concept Laser, The Maker Of The World's Largest 3D Printer For Metals."

These claims would surely be news to several companies, including privately held Optomec, which makes metal 3D printers that fall into the "laser-powder" category -- they are powered by its laser-engineered net shaping process, which is a "blown powder" technology, rather than a "powder bed" tech. The company's LENS 850-R has a build box of 900 mm x 1500 mm x 900 mm, according to its website, which makes its build volume more than 20% larger than the build volume of GE's planned 3D printer. (Ironically, perhaps, GE invested in Optomec over a year ago.) 

Come on, GE. Let's bring... accuracy to life. Investors depend on accurate primary source information.

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Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.