DEVENS, Mass. – The machines are 20 feet high, weigh 60,000 pounds and represent the technological frontier for 3D printing.
Each machine distributes 150 laser beams, projected from a portal and moves quickly back and forth, making high-tech parts for corporate customers in the field, including aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.
The parts 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 a part’s design. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mainly argon, the least reactive of gases, which reduces the chance of impurities causing defects in a part.
The 3-D print foundry in Devens, Massachusetts, about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a startup that came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $ 355 million in risk financing. And the workforce has increased sixfold in the last year to 360, with recruits from major manufacturers such as General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and technology companies including Google and Autodesk.
“We have proven that technology works,” said John Hart, one of the founders of VulcanForms and a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “What we need to show now is a strong economy as a company and that we can handle growth.”
For 3D printing, which dates back to the 1980s, technology, economic and investment trends may finally fall into place for the industry’s commercial outbreak, according to production experts, business leaders and investors.
They say that 3-D printing, also called additive production, is no longer a novelty technology for a few consumer and industrial products, or for creating prototype design concepts.
“It’s a technology that is beginning to deliver industrial quality and volume printing,” said Jörg Bromberger, a manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent report from the consulting firm entitled “The Mainstreaming of Additive Manufacturing.”
3D printing refers to creating something from scratch, one layer at a time. Computer-controlled laser beams melt powder of metal, plastic or composite material to create the layers. In traditional “subtractive” production, for example, a metal block is cast and then a part is cut down in the form of 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 exclusive running shoes. Dental implants and orthodontic equipment 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 far wider than a relatively handful of niche products. The 3D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $ 45 billion worldwide by 2026, according to a report by Hubs, a marketplace for manufacturing services.
The Biden administration is looking for 3D printing to help revive US production. 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 of Production and Economic Development.
In May, President Biden traveled to Cincinnati to announce the Additive Manufacturing Forward, 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 the use of additive manufacturing and promising to help 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 production skills. Because 3D printing is a high-tech digital production process, say administration officials, it plays into the United States’ strength in software. Additive production, they add, will make US production less dependent on casting and metalworking performed abroad, especially in China.
Additive production also promises an environmental bonus. There is far less waste than casting, forging and cutting traditional production. For some metal parts, 3D printing can reduce material costs by 90 percent and reduce energy consumption by 50 percent.
Industrial 3D printing, experts say, has the potential to significantly reduce the overall cost of making specialized parts, if the technology can be made fast and efficient enough for production in larger volumes.
VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by Dr. Hart and one of his doctoral students, Martin Feldmann. They followed a new approach to 3D printing that uses a number of many more laser beams than existing systems. It would require innovations in laser optics, sensors and software to choreograph the intricate dance of laser beams.
In 2017, they had made enough progress to believe that they could build a machine, but would need money to do so. The couple, along with Anupam Ghildyal, a series start-up veteran who had become part of the VulcanForms team, went to Silicon Valley. They secured a $ 2 million seed round from Eclipse Ventures.
VulcanForms technology, recalled Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse, tried to address the three shortcomings of 3-D printing: too slow, too expensive, and too many defects.
The start-up struggled to build a first machine that showed that the concept was feasible. But in the end it succeeded. And later versions became larger, more powerful and more precise.
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 intellectual value, protected by dozens of patents.
But VulcanForms has decided not to sell its machines. The strategy is to be a supplier to customers in need of tailor-made parts.
This approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire production process. But it is also an admission to reality that the ecosystem for additive production is lacking. The company builds every step of the production process itself, makes its own printers, designs parts, performs final machining and testing.
“We absolutely have to do it ourselves – build the whole stack of digital production – if we are to succeed,” said Mr. Feldmann, CEO. “The factory is the product.”
The Devens plant has six of the giant printers. By next year, there will be 20, the company said. VulcanForms has been looking for another factory at four locations. In five years, the company hopes to have more 3D printer factories in operation.
The do-it-yourself strategy also increases the risk and cost of starting 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 is not new, Brunell said, but no one had really managed it before. After joining VulcanForms and researching the technology, he said, “it was obvious that these guys were into the next architecture, and they had a process that worked.”
Next to each machine in VulcanForm’s plant, an operator monitors performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the laser beams at work, fed to a computer screen. The sound from the factory is a low, electronic hum, much like a data center.
The factory itself can be a potent recruitment tool. “I’ll take them here and show them the machinery,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior production manager at Pratt & Whitney, VulcanForms’ operations manager. “The usual reaction is, ‘heck, I want to be a part of it.'”
For some industrial parts, 3D printing alone is not enough. Final heat treatment and metalworking is required. In recognition of what VulcanForms bought Arwood Machine this year.
Arwood is a modern machine shop that mostly works for the Pentagon, and makes parts for fighter jets, submarines and missiles. Under VulcanForms, the plan over the next few years is for Arwood to triple its investments and workforce, currently 90 people.
VulcanForms, a private company, does not disclose its revenue. But it said sales rose rapidly, while orders rose tenfold quarter on quarter.
Sustained growth for VulcanForms will depend on increased sales to customers such as Cerebras, which makes specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras approached VulcanForms last year for help creating a complex part for water cooling of its powerful data 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, CEO of Cerebras. Engineers for 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 production. But modern 3D printing, Feldman said, also allows engineers to create new, complex designs that improve performance. “We could not have made that water cooling part any other way,” Feldman said.
“Additive production allows us to rethink how we build things,” he said. “That’s where we are now, and that’s a big change.”