Human technology

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 deploys 150 laser beams, projected from a gantry and moving rapidly back and forth, manufacturing high-tech parts for enterprise customers in fields such as aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.

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 the part. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mainly composed of argon, the least reactive of the gases, which reduces the risk 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 start-up spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He raised $355 million in venture capital. And its workforce grew sixfold last year to 360, with recruits from big manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies like Google and Autodesk.

“We have proven that 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 business and that we can handle growth.”

For 3D printing, whose origins date back to the 1980s, technology, economic and investment trends may finally be set for the industry’s commercial boom, according to manufacturing experts, industry executives business 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 volume printing,” said Jörg Bromberger, manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent consultancy firm report titled, “The integration of additive manufacturing.”

3D printing is about creating something from scratch, 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 cut into shape with machine tools.

In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to manufacture specialized parts. General Electric relies on 3D printing to make fuel injectors for jet engines, Stryker makes spinal implants, and Adidas prints mesh 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, according to experts, the potential is far greater 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 Hubsa marketplace for manufacturing services.

The Biden administration is turning to 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 Before additive manufacturing, an initiative coordinated by the White House in collaboration with major manufacturers. The first 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 US suppliers adopt the technology.

The voluntary commitments aim to accelerate investments and build a broader national base of additive manufacturing skills. Because 3D 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 casting and metalworking done overseas, particularly in China.

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

According to experts, industrial 3D printing has the potential to significantly reduce total expenses for manufacturing specialized parts, if the technology can be made fast and efficient enough for higher-volume production.

Vulcan Forms was founded in 2015 by Dr. Hart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They pursued a new approach to 3D printing that uses an array of far more laser beams than existing systems. It would take innovations in laser optics, sensors, and software to choreograph the complex dance of laser beams.

By 2017 they had made enough progress to think they could build a machine, but would need the money to do so. The duo, joined by Anupam Ghildyal, a serial start-up veteran who was now part of the VulcanForms team, traveled to Silicon Valley. They got a $2 million seed round from Eclipse Ventures.

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

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

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

But VulcanForms 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’s also a concession to the reality that the additive manufacturing ecosystem is lacking. The company builds every step of the manufacturing process itself, building its own printers, designing parts, performing final machining and testing.

“We absolutely have to do it ourselves – build the full stack of digital manufacturing – if we’re going to be successful,” said Feldmann, who is the chief executive. “The factory is the product.”

The Devens facility has six of the jumbo 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 operational 3D printing factories.

The do-it-yourself strategy also amplifies the risk and cost for the startup. But the company convinced a list of top recruits that the risk was 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 isn’t new, Brunell said, but no one had really pulled it off before. After joining VulcanForms and reviewing its technology, he said, “it was obvious these guys were on the next architecture, and they had a process that was working.”

Next to each machine in 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 factory sound is a low, electronic hum, much like a data center.

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

For some industrial parts, 3D printing alone is not enough. Final heat treatment and metal machining are required. Recognizing this, VulcanForms has 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 over the next few years is for Arwood to triple its investment and workforce, currently 90 people.

VulcanForms, a private company, does not disclose its revenues. But he said sales were growing rapidly, while orders increased tenfold quarter by quarter.

VulcanForms’ continued growth will depend on increased sales to customers like brains, which manufactures specialty semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras asked VulcanForms last year to help it manufacture a complex part for water-cooling 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 come back 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 one of the promises of additive manufacturing. But modern 3D printing, Feldman said, also allows engineers to create complex new designs that improve performance. “We couldn’t have made this water-cooling part any other way,” Feldman said.

“Additive manufacturing allows us to rethink the way we build things,” he said. “This is where we are now, and it’s a big change.”