Japanese optics manufacturing giant Nikon (TYO: 7731) has had a sizable foot in additive manufacturing (AM) for some time, and its interest in the sector has only escalated recently. This included the purchase of service bureau Morf3D, which was followed by a $622 million bid to buy AM original equipment manufacturer (OEM) SLM Solutions, publicized at the beginning of this month. Nikon then invested in Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies (HMT), an OEM with platforms that combine AM with traditional CNC machining.
Today, Nikon announced another new investment, in Optisys, Inc., a Utah-based startup that designs metal AM applications for antennas and other radio frequency (RF) components for the aerospace and defense sector. This investment, as well as those mentioned in the first paragraph, constitute part of Nikon’s Next Generation Project Division, established in 2019 to create a synergistic portfolio of a wide array of advanced technologies. Moreover, this investment appears directly related to Nikon’s bid for SLM, as Optisys operates a fleet of SLM platforms.
Characteristic of the advantages of AM techniques generally, Optisys’ designs facilitate a good deal of streamlining when compared with traditional production techniques, for instance, by reducing multiple antenna components into a single piece. In addition to this, Nikon was also likely intrigued by the potential the investment provides for producing as many RF parts as possible in-house.
The more indistinguishable that the entire consumer goods sector becomes from what is already somewhat anachronistically called “the Internet of Things”, the likelier it is that huge global conglomerates like Nikon will be forced to increasingly rely on in-house production of as many components as possible. In this way, an analogy from ecology can usefully be applied in a macroeconomic context: the limiting factor.
Basically, a limiting factor is the scarcest resource that every organism in a given environment relies upon for survival. If every organism in a local environment depends on phosphorous, and phosphorous is the resource in the scarcest supply, then phosphorous is the limiting factor for that environment. Similarly, applying the concept to the consumer goods market, we can think of antennas as a limiting factor: if more or less every consumer good beyond a certain level of complexity requires an antenna, then the amount of total goods produced is directly dependent on how many antennas can be produced.
Thus, even for a company with as many assets as Nikon, the only way to ensure long-term security over antenna supplies may be to take the supply chain into its own hands. Given that all the largest corporations currently seem to be sitting on record piles of cash, other companies will likely follow Nikon’s lead in acquiring advanced manufacturing startups, towards bolstering in-house production bureaus. Finally, the fact that Nikon’s leadership seems to consider the present a good time to buy suggests that a bottom may have been reached in the AM sector. In turn, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see more investments from other companies resembling the ones Nikon has been making.
Images courtesy of Optisys
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