This NM company wants to fill a big gap in the 3-D printing market

The 3-D printing market is massive — worth nearly $16 billion this year and expected to grow to $36 billion by 2020, according to some estimates.

That includes consumers who own printers as well as large companies like General Electric, which has invested billions in ramping up internal production and acquiring companies in the 3-D printing space.

And 3-D printing can be used in nearly everything from low-volume prototypes and parts or tools for automotive design, all the way up to complex aerospace and defense industry components. Those markets are respectively worth around $4 billion and $2.4 billion.

A 24 percent annual growth rate means the industry has all the right problems. But one big barrier still exists: there’s no across-the-board standard to ensure that 3-D printed parts hit quality benchmarks, and precious little data to track them over time.

That’s where New Mexico startup Sigma Labs comes in. The Santa Fe-based company originally focused on production, but in the last couple of years has grown into developing software that helps large-scale manufacturing and design teams conduct quality assurance and complex data analysis at scale.

Mark Cola, the company’s president and CEO, was originally a scientist in the metallurgy group at Los Alamos National Laboratory before founding Sigma Labs. Cola says that for many companies, ensuring consistent quality for 3-D printed parts is largely a manual process.

“What they’re doing today is what they’ve been doing,” said Cola. “It’s basically still trial and error. They make a build or set of parts in a build, then select some of them to cut up and analyze. It’s like a snapshot in time, instead of real-time analytics.”

There are other ways of monitoring part quality, including nontraditional inspection techniques like CT scans, which GE is using to ensure part quality and ease supply chain concerns and U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight.

The FDA issued draft guidance earlier this year, a sign that companies will likely have to begin advancing their quality assurance processes and wrangle huge data sets that allow them to track that quality all the way along the supply chain.

Sigma Labs has focused this year on developing its core quality assurance software, and building out a data analytics suite which will allow companies to track every bit of data related to a part, up to and including microsensors the company has began embedding in parts.

The company has initial relationships with several large companies, including Honeywell Aerospace. It recently received an additional contract with Honeywell under an “America Makes” additive manufacturing research project with GE Aviation. Terms of the contract weren't disclosed.

“These are opportunities for Sigma Labs to demonstrate its unique capabilities within the aerospace industry – particularly as part of initiatives for topology optimization of 3-D designed parts as well as demonstrate rapid qualification of 3-D-printed components,” said Cola in the contract announcement press release.

There’s also an opportunity when it comes to legacy manufacturing, according to Cola.

“Longer term for us, there is no reason we won’t be able to move this technology into the legacy equipment that are out there performing all the heavy lifting for the manufacturing that’s going on today,” said Cola.

Sigma Labs has eight active contracts and expects to generate an additional $263,000 in revenue in the remainder of 2016, according to SEC filings. The company had just under $2 million in assets as of June 30.

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