In a switch from high fashion to high altitude, Stratasys Ltd. is adapting a 3-D printing technology for making jewelry to create jet engine parts.
It's the latest advance in the rapidly changing business of 3-D printing, in which devices can take computerized instructions and "print" a physical object, typically by using liquid plastic that hardens.
The technology has been used to make artificial teeth, car parts, jewelry, industrial prototypes and even guns. Low-priced 3-D printers are now available to consumers.
Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie and Israel, briefed analysts and potential customers about the new printer and the technology behind it this week during the EuroMold trade show in Frankfurt, Germany.
In an interview, an executive confirmed that the product, called the Solidscape Contact 600 printer, is aimed at the aerospace and automotive industries.
Stratasys' shares, along with those of other 3-D printer companies, took a roller-coaster ride this week as investors absorbed news from the trade show. Stratasys shares climbed from a little over $117 at the start of the week to reach $124, near their all-time high, by midweek and then fell on Thursday and Friday. They fell 3 percent Friday to end exactly at $117.
The Solidscape machine, which will cost more than $50,000 and be available in early 2014, is a new version of a 3-D printer that had been used by Stratasys customers to make gold jewelry and artificial teeth. The company had sold about 4,000 units of the previous machines, at prices from about $25,000 to just under $50,000.
The new printer is considerably faster than the old models, turning out a finished product in about one-third of the time in some cases. That makes the printer more attractive for use in manufacturing and assembly situations.
"This will open a new vertical [market] for Stratasys" in the aerospace industry, Bobby Burleson, an analyst for Canaccord Genuity, wrote after attending the briefing in Germany. The printer can be used to make "light industrial parts such as turbine blades."
Stratasys executives said they also see applications in the automotive industry for the new printer. One constraint is the parts are small, a maximum of 6 inches long by 6 inches wide by 4 inches tall. But many precision components inside a jet engine are no larger.
Instead of spraying layers of plastic resin that harden into a physical object, the new printer creates a precision wax model of an object, said Bill Dahl, vice president of marketing and communications for the Solidscape unit at Stratasys.
A manufacturer coats the exterior of the model with a soft mineral material such as gypsum, then uses heat to burn away the wax inside. This creates a hollow mold that can be filled with liquid metal, which then hardens into metal parts in the shape of the original wax model, Dahl said.
In the industrial world, this process is called "investment casting" or "lost-wax casting," and the basic technique has been used to shape metals for thousands of years, Dahl said. "We just put a 3-D spin on it," he said.
"We don't just help make strong metal parts. Lots of people do that," Dahl said. "What we bring to the work is a smooth surface finish, accuracy and high precision in terms of it being a repeatable process."