High-tech printers go 3-D
This innovative manufacturing technology is finding new customers, including Apple and NASA.
Some companies are such great innovators that their business prospects remain robust despite slower growth here and abroad. One of them is 3D Systems (DDD), which manufactures and sells 3D printers.
But make no mistake, this is not just paper and ink printing. Three-dimensional printers are machines that make a variety of objects using a laser or extruder that moves along three axes to build objects in three dimensions, layer by layer, sometimes only microns thick at a time. In essence, it's not printing but manufacturing.
The technology is perfect for modeling and prototyping, since the time between design and manufacture can be as little as 12 hours. The military uses 3-D printers to resupply parts for fighter jets aboard carriers and in the combat theater.
NASA is buying them for space missions. Three-dimensional printing even can be used to make inexpensive but high quality artificial limb replacements.
Even Apple (AAPL) is coming on board -- it sells 3-D printed iPhone covers! Also a number of apps that assist in the creation and personalization of the products are already available.
The 3-D printing industry has grown almost 9% a year over the last ten years and is expected to reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.
Three-dimensional printing eliminates a lot of waste. Leftover materials can be immediately used on another project, alleviating the need for injection molding, setup costs, cutting, sanding, drilling and having scraps of material left over, as is the case with traditional manufacturing methods.
But the most impressive part is unlimited customization without having to worry about economies of scale. If you don't like a feature of the part or object you are creating, you simply tweak the CAD drawing to include your improvement and "print" another.
Three-dimensional printers reduce the time and cost of designing new products or creating custom replacement parts. And while the industry is still in its infancy, sales already are growing sharply.
In the most recent quarter, revenue at DDD soared 63% to more than $260 million. Operating margins are 17%. And management is earning a 15% return on equity. 3D Systems is likely to earn more than a dollar a share this year and more than $1.50 a share in 2013.
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