Monday, August 18, 2014

Tech Titans Bringing the Silicon Valley Mindset to the Space Industry

          by Brian Orlotti

Chuck Hull. Photo c/o Industry Week.
Over the the past decade, the building momentum of commercial space initiatives has seen a variety of new players enter the space sector. Often, these new participants are leaders in their fields. Now, 3D printing pioneer 3D Systems is getting into the space business by acquiring two firms with solid track records in that sector.

Rock Hill, SC based 3D Systems was founded in 1986 in Valencia, CA, by Chuck Hull, inventor and original patent-holder of the first stereolithography (SLA) based 3D printing system. The companies' industrial 3D printers utilize a variety of technologies including SLA, selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modelling (FDM). The company also invented the STL file format, now the de facto standard for 3D printers. 3D Systems caters to many industries, including automotive, architectural, dental/healthcare, and aerospace and defence. With $353Mln USD ($384Mln CDN) in revenue in 2012, the firm currently employs over 1000 people in 25 offices worldwide.

As stated in the August 13th, 2014 article "3D Systems Corporation Buys Sister Companies APP and APM," 3D Systems has been on an aggressive  shopping spree over the past four years, acquiring over 45 companies totaling some $520Mln USD ($566Mln CDN).

Its newest purchases are two Tulsa, Oklahoma-based sister companies:  American Precision Prototyping (APP) and American Precision Machining (APM), both of which have strong aerospace backgrounds. Both APP and APM are providers of rapid prototyping/manufacturing, product development and engineering services to a clientele that includes Boeing, EADS, Cessna, Black & Decker, NASA and General Electric. Both companies have over 24 years of experience in these areas. The cost and details of the dual acquisitions have not been made public.

3D Systems' acquisition of APP and APM will allow the company to expand its presence in a niche where it had previously been small. 3D Systems will now be positioned to offer 3D prototyping and additive manufacturing services to not only large established entities like Boeing and NASA, but also newer space players like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

3D Systems' recent moves parallel those of another technology giant: Google.

Back in June, Google bought Skybox Imaging, an Earth-observation satellite builder and data provider, for $500Mln USD ($544Mln CDN) in cash. In April, the company purchased Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones. As well, in December 2013, Google turned many heads with its purchase of DARPA-affiliated robotics firm Boston Dynamics. These purchases are part of Google's long-term goal of becoming a provider of internet access (via satellites & drones) as well as services.

Most significantly, space lies at the core of Google's plans for growth.

3D Systems' and Google's acquisition strategies share two key commonalities: the acquisitions' products enhance their own (i.e 3D Systems' aerospace presence and Google's Maps and Earth software) and they provide an entry point into expanding new markets (i.e nano/micro-satellites, space-related services like Earth imagery and Internet access for the developed/developing world).

Brian Orlotti.
In entering the space business, these two tech titans seek to bring the Silicon Valley mindset to a long-static industry.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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