DEVENS, Mass. — The machines are 6 meters 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 rapidly back and forth, creating high-tech parts for corporate customers in the aerospace, semiconductor, defense and medical implant industries.
The parts made of titanium and other materials are made 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, one of the least reactive gases, reducing the chance of impurities causing component failure.
The 3D printing foundry in Devens, Massachusetts, about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a startup that grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture capital. And the workforce has increased sixfold to 360 in the past year, with recruits from major 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 have to show now is strong financials as a company and that we can manage growth.”
For 3D printing, whose origins date back to the 1980s, technology, economic and investment trends may finally fall into place for the industry’s commercial breakthrough, according to manufacturing experts, business leaders and investors.
They say that 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is no longer a new technology for a few consumer and industrial products, or for prototyping design concepts.
“It is now a technology that is starting to deliver industrial product quality and volume printing,” said Jörg 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 making something from scratch, layer by layer. Computer-controlled laser beams melt powders of metal, plastic or composite material to create the layers. For example, in traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, a block of metal is cast and then a part is cut to shape using machine tools.
In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to make specialized parts. General Electric relies on 3D printing to make jet engine fuel nozzles, Stryker makes spinal implants, and Adidas prints trellis soles for high-performance 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 fan parts.
Today, experts say, the potential is much broader than a relatively handful of niche products. The 3D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $45 billion globally by 2026, according to a report from Hubsa marketplace for manufacturing services.
The Biden administration is looking to 3D printing to help lead a resurgence in US 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, the president’s special assistant for manufacturing and economic development.
In May, President Biden traveled to Cincinnati to announce: Additive production ahead, an initiative coordinated by the White House in conjunction with major manufacturers. The first five company members – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Siemens Energy, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin – are increasing their use of additive manufacturing and pledged to help their small and medium-sized U.S. suppliers adopt the technology.
The Voluntary Commitments are designed to accelerate investment and build a broader domestic base of additive manufacturing skills. Because 3D printing is a high-tech digital fabrication process, government officials say, it capitalizes on America’s strength in software. Additive manufacturing, they add, will make U.S. manufacturing less dependent on casting and metalworking abroad, especially in China.
Additive manufacturing also promises an environmental bonus. It is much less wasteful than the casting, forging and cutting of traditional production. For some metal parts, 3D printing can cut material costs by 90 percent and reduce energy consumption by 50 percent.
According to experts, industrial 3D printing has the potential to significantly reduce the overall cost of producing specialized parts if the technology can be made quickly and efficiently enough for higher volume production.
VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by dr. Heart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They aimed for a new approach to 3D printing that uses a range of many more laser beams than existing systems. Innovations in laser optics, sensors and software are needed to choreograph the intricate dance of laser beams.
By 2017, they had made enough progress to think they could build a machine but needed money to do so. The pair, accompanied by Anupam Ghildyal, a veteran series start-up 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, Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse, recalled the three shortcomings of 3D printing: too slow, too expensive, and too full of defects.
The start-up struggled to build a first machine that proved its concept workable. But it finally worked. And later versions got bigger, more powerful and more accurate.
Its printers, VulcanForms said, now generate 100 times the laser energy of most 3D printers and can produce parts many times faster. This printing technology is the company’s most important 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 who require custom parts.
This approach enables VulcanForms to control the entire production process. But it’s also a concession to the reality that the additive manufacturing ecosystem is missing. The company builds every phase of the production process itself, makes its own printers, designs parts, performs the final operations and tests.
“We absolutely have to do it ourselves – building the full stack of digital production – if we want to succeed,” said Mr. Feldmann, the CEO. “The factory is the product.”
The Devens facility has six of the giant printers. Next year there should be twenty, according to the company. 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 increases the risk and cost of startup. But the company has convinced a roster of high-profile recruits that the risk is worth it.
Brent Brunell joined General Electric’s VulcanForms last year, 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 gotten it done before. After joining VulcanForms and researching its technology, he said, “Obviously these guys were on their way to the next architecture, and they had a process that worked.”
Next to each machine in the VulcanForms facility, an operator monitors performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the laser beams at work, piped to a computer screen. The factory noise 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 machines,” said Kip Wyman, former senior production manager at Pratt & Whitney, chief of operations at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Heck, I want to be a part of that.'”
For some industrial parts, 3D printing alone is not enough. A final heat treatment and metalworking are needed. Recognizing that, VulcanForms has acquired Arwood machine this year.
Arwood is a modern engineering factory that works primarily for the Pentagon, making parts for fighter jets, underwater drones and missiles. Under VulcanForms, Arwood plans to triple its investment and workforce, currently 90 people, in the coming years.
VulcanForms, a privately held company, does not disclose its earnings. But it said sales rose rapidly as orders increased tenfold quarter after quarter.
Continued growth for VulcanForms will depend on increasing sales to customers such as: brain, which makes specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras last year sought VulcanForms for help creating a complex water-cooling component for its high-performance computer processors.
The semiconductor company sent VulcanForms a computer design drawing of the concept, an intricate web of tiny titanium tubes. Within 48 hours, VulcanForms had returned with a part, recalls Andrew Feldman, Cerebras chief executive. Engineers from both companies worked on further refinements and the cooling system is now in use.
Accelerating experimentation and innovation is a promise of additive manufacturing. But modern 3D printing, Mr. Feldman said, also allows engineers to create new, complex designs that improve performance. “We couldn’t have made that water-cooling part any other way,” said Mr. Feldman.
“Additive manufacturing allows us to rethink how we build things,” he said. “That’s where we are now, and that’s a big change.”