3D printing is growing beyond its novelty roots


DEVENS, Mass. – The machines are 20 feet tall, weigh 60,000 pounds and represent the technological frontier of 3D printing.

Each machine employs 150 laser beams, projected from a gantry, that rapidly move back and forth to produce high-tech parts for corporate customers in fields such as aerospace, semiconductor, defense, and medical implants.

The parts made 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 the design of a part. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mostly argon, the least reactive gas, reducing the chance of contaminants causing failures in a part.

The 3D printing foundry in Devens, Mass., about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a startup that emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture capital. And its workforce has grown six-fold in the past year to 360, with recruits from big manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies like Google and Autodesk.

“We’ve proven the technology works,” said John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “What we need to show now is strong finances as a company and that we can handle growth.”

For 3D printing, whose origins date back to the 1980s, the technology, economic and investment trends for the industry’s commercial breakthrough may finally take hold, according to manufacturing experts, business leaders and investors.

They say that 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is no longer a novel technology for some consumer and industrial products or for creating prototype design concepts.

“It is now a technology that is beginning to deliver industrial-grade product quality and high-volume printing,” said Joerg Bromberger, manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent report from the consultancy entitled The Mainstreaming of Additive Manufacturing.

3D printing refers to creating something from scratch, layer by layer. Computer-controlled laser beams melt metal, plastic, or composite powders to create the layers. For example, in traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, a block of metal is cast and then a part is machined into shape.

In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to manufacture specialized parts. General Electric is using 3D printing to make fuel nozzles for jet engines, Stryker is making spinal implants, and Adidas is printing lattice soles for high-end running shoes. Dental implants and devices for tooth correction 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 greater than a relative handful of niche products. According to a report by Hubs, a marketplace for manufacturing services, the global 3D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $45 billion by 2026.

The Biden administration is banking on 3D printing to help revive American 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.

In May, President Biden traveled to Cincinnati to announce Additive Manufacturing Forward, an initiative coordinated by the White House in cooperation with major manufacturers. The five founding members – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Siemens Energy, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin – are increasing their use of additive manufacturing and have pledged to help their small and medium-sized American suppliers to adopt the technology.

The voluntary commitments are intended to accelerate investment and build a broader domestic base of additive manufacturing skills. Because 3D printing is a high-tech digital manufacturing process, the administration says, it plays to America’s strength in software. Additive manufacturing, they add, will make American manufacturing less dependent on foundries and metalworking done abroad, particularly in China.

Additive manufacturing also promises an environmental bonus. It is far less wasteful than the casting, forging and cutting of traditional manufacturing. For some metal parts, 3D printing can reduce material costs by 90 percent and energy consumption by 50 percent.

According to experts, industrial 3D printing has the potential to significantly reduce the overall cost of manufacturing specialty parts if the technology can be developed quickly and efficiently enough for larger-scale production.

VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by Dr. Hart and one of his PhD students, Martin Feldmann. They took a new approach to 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 the laser beams.

By 2017 they had made enough progress to believe they could build a machine but would need money to do it. The pair headed to Silicon Valley alongside Anupam Ghildyal, a longtime startup veteran who had become part of the VulcanForms team. They secured a $2 million seed round from Eclipse Ventures.

VulcanForms technology, recalled Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse, attempted to solve 3D printing’s three shortcomings: too slow, too expensive, and too error-prone.

The start-up struggled to build a first machine that would prove its concept was workable. But it finally worked. And later versions got bigger, more powerful and more precise.

Its printers, VulcanForms said, now generate 100 times the laser energy of most 3-D printers and can produce parts many times faster. This printing technology is the company’s main intellectual asset, which is protected by dozens of patents.

But VulcanForms has decided not to sell its machines. Its strategy is to be a supplier for customers who need custom parts.

This approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire manufacturing process. But it is also a concession to the reality that the additive manufacturing ecosystem is missing. The company builds every stage of the manufacturing process, making its own printers, designing parts, performing finishing and testing.

“We absolutely have to do it ourselves – build the entire stack of digital manufacturing – if we want to be successful,” said Herr Feldmann, the managing director. “The factory is the product.”

The Devens plant has six of the giant printers. According to the company, there will be 20 by next year. VulcanForms has explored four locations for a second factory. In five years, the company wants to have several 3D printing factories in operation.

The do-it-yourself strategy also increases the risk and cost of the start-up. But the company has convinced a number of high-profile employees 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 laser arrays in 3D printing isn’t new, Mr. Brunell said, but nobody had really pulled it off before. After coming to VulcanForms and examining its technology, he said, “It was obvious these guys were on the next architecture, and they had a process that worked.”

Beside each machine at the VulcanForms facility, an operator monitors its performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the laser beams at work, transmitted to a computer screen. The sound of the factory is a low, electronic hum, not unlike that of a data center.

The factory itself can be a powerful recruitment tool. “I bring them over here and show them the machines,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior manufacturing manager at Pratt & Whitney who is operations manager at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Damn, I want to be a part of this.'”

For some industrial parts, 3D printing alone is not enough. A final heat treatment and metalworking is required. VulcanForms recognized this and acquired Arwood Machine earlier this year.

Arwood is a modern machine shop that works primarily for the Pentagon, making parts for fighter jets, underwater drones, and missiles. As part of VulcanForms, Arwood plans to triple its investment and workforce, currently 90 employees, over the next few years.

VulcanForms, a private company, does not disclose its earnings. But it said sales were rising rapidly while orders grew 10-fold quarter on quarter.

VulcanForms’ sustained growth will depend on increasing sales to customers such as Cerebras, which makes specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras turned to VulcanForms last year for help manufacturing a complex part to water-cool its powerful computer processors.

The semiconductor company sent VulcanForms a computer sketch of the concept, an intricate web of tiny titanium tubes. Within 48 hours, VulcanForms returned with a part, recalls Andrew Feldman, CEO of Cerebras. Engineers from both companies worked on further refinements, and the cooling system is now in service.

Accelerating the pace of experimentation and innovation is a promise of additive manufacturing. But modern 3-D printing, Feldman said, also enables engineers to create new, complex designs that improve performance. “We couldn’t have made this water cooling part any other way,” said Mr. Feldman.

“Additive manufacturing is making us rethink how we build things,” he said. “That’s where we are now and that’s a big change.”


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