Twenty-six years ago, Chuck Hull received a patent for a
system he called stereolithography.
The patent described a procedure of creating three-dimensional
objects with a computer-controlled system that shoots ultraviolet
light into a pool of liquid polymer or some other "fluid
The fluid at the surface turns solid when hit by UV light. The
object is then lowered as layer upon layer of light beams hit the
liquid surface and stitch together, sliver by sliver, the object
the computer has been programmed to produce.
As the Hull patent described, "stereolithography is a method
and apparatus for making solid objects by successively 'printing'
thin layers of a curable material, one on top of another."
That same year, in 1986, Hull co-founded3D Systems (
), now based in Rock Hill, S.C., where he is currently the chief
technology officer. It began making and selling expensive 3D
printers used in aerospace and automotive manufacturing to
develop prototype parts, plodding along in a niche market. In
2003, the company hired Abraham Reichental as president and chief
executive officer, who saw things in a different light.
"I realized this technology could change everything in terms
of how we design, create, manufacture, communicate and educate,"
said Reichental, in an interview with IBD.
makes a long line of 3D printers ranging in price from $1,300
desktop printers for the home hobbyist to large $1 million
printers able to make parts for supersonic jets. One of its
biggest markets is the health care field, where 3D printers make
custom parts for hearing aids, prosthetics and orthodontics,
among other items.
Its 3D printers also make parts for aerospace, military and
transportation industries. They can print most anything that can
be designed on a computer, from consumer electronic parts like
smartphone covers to jewelry, toys, shoes and electric guitars.
Just about anything the artist can imagine can be created with 3D
printers, said Reichental. The printers can mass customize and
locally produce whatever is needed without the need for expensive
tooling, manufacturing and shipping.
"We have journeyed from a provider of expensive printers
traditionally reserved for deep-pocketed companies to bringing 3D
printers in the home and classroom," said Reichental. "This will
become a disruptive force in democratizing creativity."
In the third quarter 3D Systems reported revenue of $90.5
million, up 57% from the same quarter a year ago and the 11th
straight quarter of double-digit gains. It reported earnings of
$18 million. That came to earnings per share, minus special
items, of 32 cents, up 78% from a year ago and the third straight
quarter of double-digit growth.
For the year, the consensus estimate of analysts polled by
Thomson Reuters looks for revenue of $351 million, a 53%
increase. Projected earnings for the year of $1.21 a share would
be a 68% increase. Shares of 3D Systems are up about 175% from
the beginning of this year.
Its competitors includeStratasys (
) andHewlett-Packard (
After 3D Systems posted third-quarter earnings on Oct. 25,
Bobby Burleson, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity, issued a report
saying the company's "strong results" that beat estimates were
driven by "strong organic growth," and an expanded distribution
channel. He also expects the low-end 3D printer technology aimed
at the consumer market "to become a meaningful contributor to the
top line by the second half of 2013."
3D Systems' revenue is divided almost equally between
printers, print materials and services.
Last month, 3D Systems announced a $3 million contract to
develop materials and technology to make parts for theLockheed
) F-35 fighter jet and other weapon systems. The company's
printers already make about 90 different parts installed in F-18
fighters, Reichental said.
During the quarter, 3D Systems acquired Vitzu Technologies,
which provides the ability to turn photos and videos into
printable 3D objects. And it acquired Rapidform, a provider of 3D
scanning and computer aided design and inspection software tools,
for $35 million. Its products are used by engineers and
Rapidform, based in Seoul, will expand 3D Systems' presence in
Korea and Japan. It also has offices in Australia, Italy and the
Netherlands. The company has acquired about 30 firms in the last
three years, many of them small, extending its platform of
capabilities and widening its patent portfolio to more than
Since its introduction of stereolithography 26 years ago, 3D
Systems has developed other 3D printing technologies for an array
of applications. Its printers also use a wide variety of print
materials, about 100 of them, that replicate the performance of
plastics, metals, waxes, rubbers and other composites.
3D parts can be made in as little as 20 minutes or take more
than 40 hours, depending on the complexity. About half its
printers currently sold are for manufacturing applications.
While 3D Systems has pushed aggressively into the consumer
market, the results have yet to show up in quarterly financial
But that will change, as Reichental sees a huge market
opportunity. In January, the company launched its first 3D
printer for the home, called Cube. It concurrently launched
, where artists, designers and consumers can make, sell or buy 3D
designs and objects.
It is in the consumer area where Reichental begins to speak
whimsically with big dreams for the future, with the notion of
having a 3D printer in every home and classroom.
"I have a great deal of passion to make this happen," he said.
"In terms of technology and cost I think we will have
plug-and-play 3D printers for a few hundred dollars that will put
this technology in the hands of many people."
For all these reasons, he said, "We believe 3D printing is a
canvas for the future that anyone can use to communicate, create,
express and educate."