3D printing goes beyond its novelty

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

Each machine uses 150 laser beams projected from a gantry that travel rapidly back and forth, producing high-tech parts for corporate customers in areas such as aerospace, semiconductor, defense and medical implants.

Parts made of titanium and other materials are created layer by layer, each about the thickness of a human hair, up to 20,000 layers, depending on the design of the part. Machines are sealed. Internally, the atmosphere is mostly argon, one of the least reactive gases, which reduces the chance of impurities causing defects in the part.

The 3D printing facility in Devens, Massachusetts, about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, an MIT startup. The company has raised $355 million in venture capital funding. Over the past year, its workforce has increased six-fold to 360 with employees from major manufacturers such as General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, as well as technology companies including Google and Autodesk.

“We’ve proven the technology works,” said John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Now we need to demonstrate the company’s strong financials and that we can drive growth.”

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

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

“Now it’s a technology that’s starting to deliver industrial quality and high-volume printing,” said Jörg Bromberger, manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent report by a consulting firm called “Introduction of Additive Manufacturing”.

3D printing is about building something from scratch, one layer at a time. Computer-controlled laser beams melt metal, plastic or composite material powders to create layers. In traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, for example, a block of metal is cast and then the part is cut to shape using machine tools.

In recent years, some companies have used additive manufacturing to make custom parts. General Electric uses 3D printing to make jet fuel injectors, Stryker makes spinal implants, and Adidas prints lattice soles for high-end running shoes. Dental implants and teeth straighteners are 3D printed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 3D printers have been making emergency stocks of face shields and fan parts.

Today, according to experts, the potential is much wider than a small number of niche products. The global 3D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $45 billion by 2026. hubs reportmanufacturing services market.

The Biden administration is hoping 3D printing will help revive American manufacturing. Additive manufacturing will be one of “the foundations of modern manufacturing in the 21st century,” along with robotics and artificial intelligence, said Elizabeth 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 five original corporate members – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Siemens Energy, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin – are expanding the use of additive manufacturing and have pledged to help their small and mid-sized US suppliers adopt the technology.

The Voluntary Commitments are designed to accelerate investment and build a broader in-house AM skill base. Because 3D printing is a high-tech digital manufacturing process, administration officials say it plays into the hands of the US in software. They add that additive manufacturing will make U.S. manufacturing less dependent on casting and metalworking overseas, especially in China.

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

Experts say that industrial 3D printing can significantly reduce the overall cost of manufacturing specialized parts if the technology is fast and efficient enough for high-volume production.

VolcanoShapes was founded in 2015 by the company Dr. Heart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They used a new approach to 3D printing that uses far more laser beams than existing systems. It will take innovation 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 car, but it would take money to do so. The couple, joined by Anupam Gildyal, a serial startup veteran who became part of the VulcanForms team, headed to Silicon Valley. They received a $2 million seed round from Eclipse Ventures.

VulcanForms technology, Eclipse partner Greg Reichow recalled, tried to eliminate the three disadvantages of 3D printing: too slow, too expensive, and riddled with defects.

The startup struggled to build the first machine that proved its concept to work. But in the end it succeeded. And later versions have become larger, more powerful and more accurate.

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

But VulcanForms decided not to sell their machines. His strategy is to be a supplier to customers who need custom made parts.

This approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire production process. But it is also a concession to the reality of the lack of an additive manufacturing ecosystem. The company builds every step of the manufacturing process in-house, building its own printers, designing parts, finishing and testing.

“We absolutely need to do it ourselves – to create a complete set of digital production – if we are to succeed,” said Mr. Feldmann, who is the chief executive. “The factory is the product.”

The Devens plant has six giant printers. The company says it should have 20 by next year. VulcanForms has found four locations for a second factory. In five years, the company hopes to launch several 3D printing factories.

A do-it-yourself strategy also increases the risk and cost of a startup. But the company has convinced a number 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 idea of ​​using large arrays of lasers in 3D printing is not new. Brunell said, but no one had done it before. After he joined VulcanForms and studied its technology, he said, “It was obvious that these guys were working on a new architecture and they had a working process.”

Near each machine in the VulcanForms facility, the operator monitors machine performance with a stream of sensor data and camera feeds of laser beams in progress, which are displayed on 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 equipment,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior production manager at Pratt & Whitney who now leads operations at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Gosh, I want to be a part of this.’

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

Arwood is a modern machine shop that mainly works for the Pentagon, making parts for fighter jets, underwater drones and missiles. According to VulcanForms, Arwood plans to triple its investment and workforce, which currently stands at 90 people, over the next few years.

VulcanForms, a privately held company, does not disclose its earnings. But it says sales have grown rapidly, with bookings increasing tenfold quarter after quarter.

The sustainable growth of VulcanForms will depend on increasing sales to customers such as brain, which manufactures specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Last year, Cerebras turned to VulcanForms for help building a complex water-cooling part for their powerful computer processors.

The semiconductor company sent VulcanForms a computer drawing of the concept, an intricate web of tiny titanium tubes. Within 48 hours, VulcanForms returned the part, recalls Andrew Feldman, chief executive of Cerebras. Engineers from both companies have been working 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, sir. It also allows engineers to create new, complex designs that increase productivity, Feldman says. “We couldn’t have done this water-cooled part differently,” Feldman said.

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