The newest 3D printing technology is getting a boost with LEGO and Stanley Black & Decker on board. Will Selective Thermoplastic Electrophotographic Process (STEP) be worth the wait?
Looking back five years, the hype around 3D printing was extraordinary and unwarranted, driving the stock prices of the few publicly traded companies sky high. This enabled them to buy up companies in or related to the 3D printing industry almost without forethought or compunction. Who at the time thought that another “2D” technology would be applied to “3D” printing?
Apparently Stratasys did. Yes, the same Stratasys that merged with Objet, the manufacturer of 3D printers based on 2D print technology: inkjet. Inkjet, in my opinion, has the highest upside potential of any 2D or 3D printing technology (2D, 3D, bioprinting).
But today we are considering the electrophotography-based technology that Stratasys spun off.
Evolve Additive is not, as some mistakenly think, a subsidiary of Stratasys. Evolve Additive is actually a separate entity, with (among others) LEGO and Stanley Black & Decker as investors. The company is striving to bring STEP to the market.
Evolve Additive has the audacious goal of providing 3D printers that are not intended for prototyping but instead go straight to producing finished goods, in volume. The company’s goal is to move from the “box build” concept, in which users try to pack as many parts into the cubic build area as possible and are limited in their output as a result. Their concept is to do things interlayer and to speed up the process and overall throughput.
Lest you think this is a pipe dream, Evolve Additive shipped its first alpha 3D printer — yes, an alpha, so keep your eyes and ears open — in September. The company expects to be in “alpha” stage for the next 10 months, moving to beta about a year from now.
In the meantime, Evolve Additive is working toward a “minimum viable product.” This will enable it to evaluate and work with its tech to build out the idea and develop the features and functions that customers care about such as factory integration and specific applications for end-use parts.
So why LEGO or Stanley Black & Decker?
Certainly LEGO is striving to offer more sustainable bricks and other items. And Evolve Additive will be working with them to develop the materials that meet their needs while assuring safety, cost, manufacturability and new sustainable materials, including enabling support material that is reusable and not simply recyclable. Nevertheless, there is a lot of material development to come. LEGO has the ability, as an investor, to influence materials development.
Stanley Black & Decker? In many ways this company is the stealth 3D print technology innovator. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Stanley+TechStars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator. Of the 10 companies I met with, seven are actively involved with 3D printing hardware and software development. And not just from Connecticut, New England or the USA — the companies benefiting from the TechStars Accelerator program were from as far away as Israel.
Will STEP be worth the wait? My advice is to invest now in the right 3D printing for your current applications, while remaining aware of the potential quality, throughput and performance enabled by new technologies and new providers such as Evolve Additive.
Pete Basiliere is a Research Vice President at Gartner.