Optomec is an American company that has two 3D printing technologies: Aerosol Jet and LENS. Aerosol Jet can be used to 3D print electronics and is being used to 3D print millions of mobile phone antennas. LENS is a metal 3D printing technology that can be added onto existing CNC equipment and is used to repair parts using 3D printing. Optomec, along with Sciaky, was once a relatively unknown 3D printing company. Both firms did a lot of work for the aerospace and defense community in the United States and were not very well known outside that community. That has now changed and Optomec is now on the march to 3D print more sensors and antennas as well as metal parts.
Optomec has formed an alliance with Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation (TNSC). TNSC is a company specializing in industrial gasses and a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Chemical. TNSC is a 14,000-person company that delivers industrial and medical gasses along with the necessary equipment. In metal 3D printing these gasses are crucial in inhibiting fire and letting heat manageably build parts. TNSC will resell Optomec machines and use its vast gasses knowledge to improve the process.
At RAPID + TCT Optomec showcased one of its 3D printed sensors made for GE. This printed passive strain sensor was printed on turbine blades. With Aerosol Jet sensors can not only be made but placed on a wide array of substrates. By 3D printing sensors and antennas in this way Optomec is trying to position itself as the printing company that can make the IoT a reality. The idea of the Internet of Things is that by connecting devices, processes and objects to the internet we can in effect make them smart. The street light will tell us when it needs to be replaced or sensors in the mains will ensure that the water is pure. A sensor printed on a machine could tell us when it is malfunctioning or what the temperature is around it. Optomec has printed a lot of sensors and antennas in the past and by leveraging their expertise they could provide some of the sensors for the IoT revolution. If they do successfully place themselves at the intersection of IoT and 3D printing then this opportunity alone could give them a bright future.
The sensor for GE was printed using a ceramic and is meant to detect failures in the metal before they happen. The information can then be used in PREDIX, a GE software tool meant to bring IoT to predictive and preventative maintenance as well as process optimization. A sensor on a turbine blade may not sound amazing but there are millions of mechanical devices and turbines worldwide whirring away making the world go. If 3D printed IoT systems could reduce failures in them or optimize their functioning in some way the impact would be huge. Additionally the company prints many LTE, NFC, GPS, WiFi and WLAN antennas. These could also be used to let the IoT sensor communicate with the outside world. If you have an iPhone that iPhone may have some Optomec 3D printed parts in it.
Optomec is privately held and would be a logical acquisition candidate for GE. For MRO and rejuvenation of turbine blades and other equipment LENS is a widely used technology. A lot of GE products are, or contain, turbine blades. Applying LENS more widely in its businesses to build structural parts is also a distinct possibility and may let the company save on weight. Meanwhile the company is placing itself directly at a sweet spot of manufacturing, optimization, IoT and 3D printing through Aerosol Jet. A sweet spot that GE wishes to own. GE itself is at a 52 week low and worth about half it was in 2000. The company has moved into 3D printing in a big way with its acquisitions of Morris, Arcam and Concept Laser. The company is set to become one of the largest 3D printing metal companies along with EOS. This could set them up for future growth and their metal printing expertise could be widely deployed in improving the company’s own products. Investors and analysts so far are not getting very excited by GE’s 3D printing dream and seem to treat the company as a trusted but boring ATM that needs to keep spitting cash reliably. GE’s move into metal printing is very astute, however, and could give them a significant edge over competitors and much future growth. Let’s see how long it takes for analysts to figure this out and let’s see if GE acquires Optomec.
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