3D printing grows beyond its novelty roots
By Steve Lohr
The machines stand 20 feet high, weigh 60,000 pounds and represent the technological frontier of 3D printing.
Each machine deploys 150 laser beams, projected from a gantry and moving quickly back and forth, making high-tech parts for corporate customers in fields including aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.
The parts of titanium and other materials are created layer by layer, each about as thin as a human hair, up to 20,000 layers, depending on a part’s design. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mainly argon, the least reactive of gases, reducing the chance of impurities that cause defects in a part.
The 3D-printing foundry in Devens, Massachusetts, about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a startup that came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture funding. And its workforce has jumped sixfold in the past year to 360, with recruits from major manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies including Google and Autodesk.
“We have proven the technology works,” said John Hart, a co-founder of VulcanForms and a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “What we have to show now is strong financials as a company and that we can manage growth.”
For 3D printing, whose origins stretch back to the 1980s, the technology, economic and investment trends may finally be falling into place for the industry’s commercial breakout, according to manufacturing experts, business executives and investors.
They say 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is no longer a novelty technology for a few consumer and industrial products, or for making prototype design concepts.
“It is now a technology that is beginning to deliver industrial-grade product quality and printing in volume,” said Jörg Bromberger, a manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Co. He is the lead author of a recent report by the consulting firm titled, “The Mainstreaming of Additive Manufacturing.”
3D printing refers to making something from the ground up, one layer at a time. Computer-guided laser beams melt powders of metal, plastic or composite material to create the layers. In traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, a block of metal, for example, is cast and then a part is carved down into shape with machine tools.
In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to make specialized parts. General Electric relies on 3D printing to make fuel nozzles for jet engines, Stryker makes spinal implants and Adidas prints latticed soles for high-end running shoes. Dental implants and teeth-straightening devices are 3D printed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 3D printers produced emergency supplies of face shields and ventilator parts.
Today, experts say, the potential is far broader than a relative handful of niche products. The 3D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $45 billion worldwide by 2026, according to a report by Hubs, a marketplace for manufacturing services.
The Biden administration is looking to 3D printing to help lead a resurgence of U.S. manufacturing. Additive technology will be one of “the foundations of modern manufacturing in the 21st century,” along with robotics and artificial intelligence, said Elisabeth Reynolds, special assistant to the president for manufacturing and economic development.
VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by Hart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They pursued a fresh approach for 3D printing that uses an array of many more laser beams than existing systems. It would require innovations in laser optics, sensors and software to choreograph the intricate dance of laser beams.
By 2017, they had made enough progress to think they could build a machine, but would need money to do it. The pair, joined by Anupam Ghildyal, a serial startup veteran who had become part of the VulcanForms team, went to Silicon Valley. They secured a seed round of $2 million from Eclipse Ventures.
The VulcanForms technology, recalled Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse, was trying to address the three shortcomings of 3D printing: too slow, too expensive and too ridden with defects.
The startup struggled to build a first machine that proved its concept workable. But it eventually succeeded. And later versions grew larger, more powerful and more precise.
Its printers, VulcanForms said, now generate 100 times the laser energy of most 3D printers, and can produce parts many times faster. That print technology is the company’s core intellectual asset, protected by dozens of patents.
But VulcanForms has decided not to sell its machines. Its strategy is to be a supplier to customers in need of custom-made parts.
That approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire manufacturing process. But it is also a concession to the reality that the ecosystem of additive manufacturing is lacking. The company is building each stage of the manufacturing process itself, making its own printers, designing parts, doing final machining and testing.
“We absolutely have to do it ourselves — build the full stack of digital manufacturing — if we are to succeed,” said Feldmann, who is the CEO. “The factory is the product.”
The Devens facility has six of the giant printers. By next year, there should be 20, the company said. VulcanForms has scouted four locations for a second factory. In five years, the company hopes to have several 3D printing factories up and running.
The do-it-yourself strategy also magnifies the risk and the cost for the startup. But the company has convinced a roster of high-profile recruits that the risk is worth it.
Brent Brunell joined VulcanForms last year from General Electric, where he was an additive manufacturing expert. The concept of using large arrays of lasers in 3D printing is not new, Brunell said, but no one had really pulled it off before. After he joined VulcanForms and examined its technology, he said, “it was obvious these guys were onto the next architecture, and they had a process that was working.”
Beside each machine in VulcanForms’ facility, an operator monitors its performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the laser beams at work, piped to a computer screen. The sound of the factory is a low, electronic hum, much like a data center.
The factory itself can be a potent recruiting tool. “I bring them here and show them the machinery,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior manufacturing manager at Pratt & Whitney, who is head of operations at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Heck, I want to be part of that.’ ”