After a couple years of work, Desktop Metal took the wraps off its metal 3D printers this week. The startup has drawn $97 million from high-profile investors who are betting the technology could transform the way metal parts get developed and manufactured. So, what’s the big deal?
Standard metal-making 3D printers are bulky, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, suck up massive amounts of gases and industrial-scale electricity, require permits to operate, and use powerful—and potentially dangerous—lasers. When Burlington, MA-based Desktop Metal was formed in 2015, its founders set out to build a metal 3D printer that would be much cheaper, smaller, safer and easier to operate, and could churn out parts more quickly.
“Our view is metal 3D printing to date has been a very industrial technology, like the 1970s punch-card computers,” says Ric Fulop, Desktop Metal’s co-founder and CEO.
His startup, which employs over 100 people, has developed two different metal 3D printers. (See photo slideshow above.)
One is small enough to fit on a desk, and is meant for designing and making prototypes in an office or on the factory floor. It requires no dedicated operator or external ventilation, and it runs on power from a standard wall outlet.
“The machine literally arrives, rolls through any standard door, and all it needs is power, and you’re printing parts in an office,” Fulop says. “If you’re an engineer, you can print parts next to where you design them.”
The other printer Desktop Metal has developed is larger and is intended for mass-producing metal parts in a factory. Its cost per part is much lower than standard metal 3D printers, and it’s cost-competitive with metal casting—but without the need for building custom machine tooling parts, Fulop says.
Desktop Metal’s machines might be used to produce brake assemblies, brackets, and propellers, among other parts, Fulop says. The company’s early customers include Caterpillar and BMW, whose venture capital arm invested in the startup. Desktop Metal’s other backers include GV, NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lux Capital, GE Ventures, Saudi Aramco, the corporate venture arm of Lowe’s, and 3D printing giant Stratasys.
Both Desktop Metal printers use a metal injection molding process to produce parts, Fulop says. The office-friendly printer uses an approach similar to fused deposition modeling, which is common in 3D printers that make plastic parts. In Desktop Metal’s case, a cartridge is loaded with thin rods made of metal powder bound with polymers, and then that material gets heated up and shot through a nozzle to form the part, layer by layer.
The larger printer uses a different process the company has developed, called “single pass jetting.” Metal powder gets deposited, then droplets of a binding agent are “jetted” onto the powder, and heat is applied to solidify the binding agents. This process repeats itself for each layer of the part. The machine includes two bars that contain over 32,000 jets that spray millions of droplets per second as they move back and forth across the part-building area. It takes less than three seconds to print a layer, so printing an entire part can take just a few minutes, the company says.
After printing the part with either the office-friendly or larger industrial printer, the part gets placed for several hours in a furnace developed by Desktop Metal. The furnace heats the part to a near-melting temperature in order to remove the binding materials and fuse the metal particles. The furnace equipment is insulated in a way that the exterior remains safe to touch, says senior program manager Mark Sowerbutts.
The company’s furnace uses a combination of thermal heat and microwaves to speed up this sintering process, Fulop says. The parts require less heat treating than those made with laser-based metal 3D printers; Desktop Metal’s parts are ready “right out of the furnace,” and you “don’t need a dedicated metallurgist on staff to run it,” he says.
From start to finish, Desktop Metal says, its machines can print quality parts in a matter of hours, instead of the weeks it might take with current metal 3D printers.
Another selling point is Desktop Metal’s parts can be removed from their support structures by hand. Laser-based metal printers require tools to separate the excess material from the core part because all the materials are welded together. But Desktop Metal’s printers apply ceramic between the part and the support material, so when the ceramic gets heated in the furnace, it turns to sand and enables easy separation, Fulop says.
Desktop Metal plans to begin shipping its office-friendly 3D printers in September. The full system—including the printer, furnace, and cloud-based software that runs the machines—will cost about $120,000, Fulop says.
The larger printer will likely cost around $360,000 (not including the furnace), Fulop says. It will start shipping next year to an initial group of pilot customers, says Marc Minor, the company’s vice president of marketing.
These aren’t small investments, but they’re still cheaper than typical metal 3D printing systems, which can run over $800,000 for the printer and post-processing equipment, Fulop says.
Desktop Metal is certainly worth watching, as it quickly raised a lot of money from well-known investors, and its team comes from high-profile companies and organizations like A123 Systems, SolidWorks, Kiva Systems, and MIT.
But, now that Desktop Metal has unveiled its first products, the pressure is on to prove that its technology works as advertised—and to build a big business worthy of all that venture capital.
Jeff Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org