3D printing grows beyond its novel roots

DEVENS, Mass. — The machines stand 20 feet tall, 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, manufacturing high-tech parts for corporate clients in fields including aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.

Titanium and other material parts are created layer by layer, each as fine as a human hair, up to 20,000 layers, depending on the part’s design. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is primarily argon, the least reactive of the gases, reducing the chance of impurities causing defects in a part.

The 3D printing foundry in Devens, Massachusetts, about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a startup company spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture funding. And its workforce has grown sixfold in the last year to 360, with recruits from major manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies like Google and Autodesk.

“We’ve shown that the technology works,” said John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms and a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “What we have to show now is solid financials as a company and that we can manage growth.”

For 3-D printing, whose origins date back to the 1980s, technological, economic and investment trends may finally be coming together for the industry’s commercial takeoff, according to manufacturing experts, business executives and investors.

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

“It is now a technology that is starting to deliver industrial-grade product quality and volume printing,” said Jörg Bromberger, manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent consultancy report titled “Integrating Additive Manufacturing.”

3D printing refers to making something from scratch, one layer at a time. Computer-guided laser beams melt metal, plastic, or composite powders to create the layers. In traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, a block of metal, for example, is cast, and then a piece is carved 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 lattice 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 much 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 from Hubs, a marketplace for manufacturing services.

The Biden administration is considering 3D printing to help lead a resurgence in 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 collaboration with major manufacturers. The initial five corporate members – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Siemens Energy, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin – are increasing their use of additive manufacturing and have committed to helping their small and medium-sized US suppliers adopt the technology.

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

Additive manufacturing also promises an environmental bonus. It is much 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 reduce energy use by 50 percent.

Industrial 3D printing, experts say, has the potential to substantially reduce the total expense of making specialized parts, if the technology can be made fast and efficient enough for higher-volume production.

VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by Dr. Hart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They looked for a new approach to 3D printing that uses an array of many more lasers 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 that they thought they could build a machine, but they would need money to do so. The pair, along with Anupam Ghildyal, a serial startup veteran who had become part of the VulcanForms team, went to Silicon Valley. They secured a $2 million seed round from Eclipse Ventures.

The VulcanForms technology, Eclipse partner Greg Reichow recalled, was trying to address the three shortcomings of 3D printing: too slow, too expensive, and full of flaws.

The startup struggled to build a first machine that would prove its concept was viable. But finally he was successful. And later versions got bigger, more powerful and more accurate.

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

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

That approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire manufacturing process. But it’s also a concession to the reality that the additive manufacturing ecosystem is missing. The company is building each stage of the manufacturing process itself, building its own printers, designing parts, doing final machining and testing.

“We absolutely have to do it ourselves, build the full digital manufacturing stack, if we want to be successful,” said Mr. Feldmann, who is the chief executive. “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 explored 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 cost to start-up. But the company has convinced a list of high-profile recruits that the risk is worth it.

Brent Brunell joined VulcanForms last year from General Electric, where he was an expert in additive manufacturing. The concept of using large arrays of lasers in 3D printing isn’t new, Brunell said, but no one had done it before. After joining VulcanForms and examining its technology, he said, “It was obvious these guys were on the next architecture and had a process that was working.”

Next to each machine at the VulcanForms facility, an operator monitors its performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the working lasers, channeled 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 powerful recruiting tool. “I bring them here and show them the machinery,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior manufacturing manager at Pratt & Whitney who is chief operating officer at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Hell, I want to be a part of that.'”

For some industrial parts, 3D printing alone is not enough. Final heat treatment and metal machining is needed. Recognizing that, VulcanForms acquired Arwood Machine this year.

Arwood is a modern machine shop that works primarily for the Pentagon, making parts for fighter jets, underwater drones, and missiles. Under VulcanForms, the plan for the next few years is for Arwood to triple its investment and workforce, currently 90 people.

VulcanForms, a private company, does not disclose its income. But he said sales were rising rapidly, while orders were growing tenfold quarter on quarter.

VulcanForms’ continued growth will depend on increased sales to clients such as Cerebras, which makes specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras turned to VulcanForms last year for help making an intricate part to water-cool its powerful computer processors.

The semiconductor company sent VulcanForms a computer design drawing of the concept, an intricate network of tiny titanium tubes. Within 48 hours, VulcanForms had returned with a part, recalled Andrew Feldman, CEO of Cerebras. Engineers from both companies worked on further improvements and the cooling system is now in use.

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

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

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