While last year’s speculative gaze was squarely on the bitcoin plays interspersed with Pilbara ‘watermelon’ nuggets, the proliferating listed 3D sector proved a quieter winner.

Indeed, robotics of any ilk remains a sexy investment theme. As Aurora Labs chief David Budge puts it: “my philosophy is that 3D printing is and will be at the forefront of the new industrial revolution and will transform manufacturing.”

Titomic has led the way, with its shares surging more than 800 per cent since listing in mid September after a $6.5m raising.

Along the way, Titomic has fed the market with a steady diet of announcements, thus avoiding the flat spot that afflicts so many ASX debutantes.

We’re not talking about the gong for Best Marine Innovation at a shipping expo in November, although such trophies are always nice for the corporate pool room.

Developed by the CSIRO, Titomic’s technology play has pioneered a form of cold fusion, but sadly it won’t do anything to abate the energy crisis.

It’s all about kinetic fusion, which involves spraying titanium alloy on to a lattice to produce a load-bearing structure.

The process expands 3D printing technology to bigger items such as aircraft parts and ballistic coatings on military vessels and vehicles.

To date, titanium coating has been limited by the need to melt the metal in a vacuum chamber.

“It’s like glorified welding,” says Titomic chief CEO Jeff Lang. “One problem is that the heat distorts the parts.”

With Titomic’s cold-spray process, the coating at supersonic speed bombards the underlying material.

While focused on titanium, Titomic’s process can meld dissimilar materials together, such as blend of titanium and ceramics.

 “In aerospace the strut in a wing can be made from two materials with attendant weight savings,” Lang says.

In December, Titomic shares surged further after the company announced a tie-up with the Perth-based engineering firm Callidus, to produce parts for the latter’s oil and gas clients.

It’s expected that Callidus will purchase a Titomic manufacturing system after successful completion of the initial work, to be carried out at Titomic’s new Melbourne facility.

Paradoxically, Titomic’s greater fortunes might lie with the age old vehicle of the masses: bicycles.

A $50bn a year sector globally, making bike frames involves intricate work, especially with the cashed up lycra set demanding the best of titanium/carbon/scandium alloy technology.

In late December Titomic appointed Peter Teschner to head the bike division. We don’t normally mention mid-management hires, but apparently Teschner is dubbed the Master Craftsman among the pedal pushers and he even designed a mount for Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.

Titomic has also teamed with a “well known” North American bike maker to develop a high performance titanium bike.

Meanwhile the Melbourne facility is on schedule to start production trials in the June quarter. The factory is capable of producing parts for industries including aerospace, automotive, sporting goods, marine and medical and mobility equipment.

Aurora Labs (A3D) 97c

Aurora investors buckled in for a wild ride after the 3D play listed at 20c in August 2016, after a $2.85m raising.

The shares shot up to $4 in February last year, prompting management to raise another $7m at $2.50 apiece. By October the shares had slumped to 50c, but in November jumped 75 per cent after news of a tie-up with engineer Worley Parsons.

Strictly speaking the news of a binding term sheet with the engineering group was ‘olds”, given a non-binding version was announced last January.

Aurora is developing 3D metal printers, powders and parts, including a medium-format machine capable of replicating some large-scale metal manufacturing at rapid speeds.

In the 2016-17 year Aurora chalked up first sales of a small format printer. But Budge says the real opportunity lies with large and medium format printers, given the higher prices and more lucrative markets.

Aurora’ s large format unit is capable of printing one tonne of material in 24 hours which, the company claims, no rival product is capable of doing.

“We are now in the process of developing a prototype of the medium format printer and will aim to get an operational pre production large-format printer to print complex parts at rapid speeds during 2018,” Budge says.

 Robo 3D (RBO) 5.3c

While Aussie retailers quiver at the mere mention of Amazon, the online behemoth is a friend to the Californian-based producer of desktop 3D printers.

Thanks to Amazon’s distribution reach, Robo 3D recorded better than expected sales of a newly-launched entry-level unit that sells for a sharp $US499 ($620).

The units, called R1+, generated $750,000 of sales in the December quarter. Robo also has a $US799 model that targets the education model and a deluxe $US1499 version for professionals and ‘prosumers’.

Robo was founded by a clutch of San Diego University students in 2012 and the company has been selling printers since 2013. Robo back-door listed on the ASX in December 2016, having raised $4m at 10c apiece.

Last December management tapped the well for a further $3.1m, at 4.5c apiece.

With its shares trading well below par, Robo is the laggard of the sector but at least it’s getting money through the door: the company expects to report $4m of revenue for the first (December) half, exceeding the $3.1m achieved for the entire 2016-17 year.

333D (T3D) 0.6c

Meanwhile, 333D has cornered the market in ‘bobblehead’ cricketer figurines, after inking a deal with the Australian Cricket Board in early December.

The deal came just in time for the Ashes hero keepsakes to be sold at the Boxing Day test, although we doubt the Barmy Army was an enthusiastic client.

In another case of brilliant timing, 333 gained the rights to produce Dustin Martin figurines in early September – just before the grand final that elevated the tattooed hero to patron saint of the yellow and black hordes.

A separate deal with the AFL covers lesser footy mortals.

Sadly the Martin magic is yet to rub off on 333D’s sub 1c share price.  The company generate d$150,000 of sales in the September quarter and we await the December numbers with interest to see how many Dusty figurines sold for $149 a pop.

The market currently values Titomic at $40m, Aurora at $25m, Robo3D at $16m and 333D at $4m.

Tim Boreham edits the New Criterion

Tim.boreham@independentresearch.com.au