With the technology improving and costs falling, 3-D printing could be poised to play a major role in manufacturing.
The frame of a 3-D printer being built at VulcanForms, which was founded by Martin Feldmann, left, and John Hart.Credit…Simon Simard for The New York Times
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DEVENS, Mass. — The machines stand 20 feet high, weigh 60,000 pounds and represent the technological frontier of 3-D printing.
Each machine deploys 150 laser beams, projected from a gantry and moving quickly back and forth, making high-tech parts for corporate customers in fields including aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.
The parts 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 a part’s design. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mainly argon, among the least reactive of gases, reducing the chance of impurities that cause defects in a part.
The 3-D-printing foundry in Devens, Mass., about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a start-up that came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture funding. And its work force has jumped sixfold in the past year to 360, with recruits from major manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies including Google and Autodesk.
“We have proven the technology works,” said John Hart, a co-founder of VulcanForms and a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T. “What we have to show now is strong financials as a company and that we can manage growth.”
For 3-D printing, whose origins stretch back to the 1980s, the technology, economic and investment trends may finally be falling into place for the industry’s commercial breakout, according to manufacturing experts, business executives and investors.
They say 3-D 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 printing in volume,” said Jörg Bromberger, a manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company. He is the lead author of a recent report by the consulting firm titled, “The Mainstreaming of Additive Manufacturing.”
3-D printing refers to making something from the ground up, 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 carved down into shape with machine tools.
In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to make specialized parts. General Electric relies on 3-D printing to make fuel nozzles for jet engines, Stryker makes spinal implants and Adidas prints latticed soles for high-end running shoes. Dental implants and teeth-straightening devices are 3-D printed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 3-D printers produced emergency supplies of face shields and ventilator parts.
Today, experts say, the potential is far broader than a relative handful of niche products. The 3-D 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 to 3-D printing to help lead a resurgence of 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 Additive Manufacturing Forward, an initiative coordinated by the White House in collaboration with major manufacturers. The five initial corporate 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-size American suppliers adopt the technology.
The voluntary commitments are intended to accelerate investment and build a broader domestic base of additive manufacturing skills. Because 3-D 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, especially in China.
Additive manufacturing also promises an environmental bonus. It is far less wasteful than the casting, forging and cutting of traditional manufacturing. For some metal parts, 3-D printing can cut materials costs by 90 percent and reduce energy use by 50 percent.
Industrial 3-D printing, experts say, has the potential to substantially cut the total expense of making specialized parts, if the technology can be made fast and efficient enough for higher-volume production.
VulcanForms was founded in 2015 by Dr. Hart and one of his graduate students, Martin Feldmann. They pursued a fresh approach for 3-D printing that uses an array 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.
By 2017, they had made enough progress to think they could build a machine, but would need money to do it. The pair, joined by Anupam Ghildyal, a serial start-up veteran who had become part of the VulcanForms team, went to Silicon Valley. They secured a seed round of $2 million from Eclipse Ventures.
The VulcanForms technology, recalled Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse, was trying to address the three shortcomings of 3-D printing: too slow, too expensive and too ridden with defects.
The start-up struggled to build a first machine that proved its concept workable. But it eventually succeeded. And later versions grew larger, more powerful and more precise.
Its printers, VulcanForms said, now generate 100 times the laser energy of most 3-D printers, and can produce parts many times faster. That print technology is the company’s core 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 in need of custom-made parts.
That approach allows VulcanForms to control the entire manufacturing process. But it is also a concession to the reality that the ecosystem of additive manufacturing is lacking. The company is building each stage of the manufacturing process itself, making its own printers, designing parts, doing final machining and testing.
“We absolutely have to do it ourselves — build the full stack of digital manufacturing — if we are to succeed,” said Mr. Feldmann, who is the chief executive. “The factory is the product.”
The Devens facility has six of the giant 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 3-D printing factories up and running.
The do-it-yourself strategy also magnifies the risk and the cost for the start-up. But the company has convinced a roster 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 concept of using large arrays of lasers in 3-D printing is not new, Mr. Brunell said, but no one had really pulled it off before. After he joined VulcanForms and examined its technology, he said, “it was obvious these guys were onto the next architecture, and they had a process that was working.”
Beside each machine in VulcanForms’s facility, an operator monitors its performance with a stream of sensor data and a camera image of the laser beams at work, piped to a computer screen. The sound of the factory is a low, electronic hum, much like a data center.
The factory itself can be a potent recruiting tool. “I bring them here and show them the machinery,” said Kip Wyman, a former senior manufacturing manager at Pratt & Whitney, who is head of operations at VulcanForms. “The usual reaction is, ‘Heck, I want to be part of that.’”
For some industrial parts, 3-D printing alone is not enough. Final heat treatment and metal machining are needed. Recognizing that, VulcanForms acquired Arwood Machine this year.
Arwood is a modern machine shop that mostly does work 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 work force, currently 90 people.
VulcanForms, a private company, does not disclose its revenue. But it said sales were climbing rapidly, while orders were rising tenfold quarter by quarter.
Sustained growth for VulcanForms is going to depend on increasing sales to customers like Cerebras, which makes specialized semiconductor systems for artificial intelligence applications. Cerebras sought out VulcanForms last year for help making a complex part for water-cooling its powerful 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 come back with a part, recalled Andrew Feldman, chief executive of Cerebras. Engineers for both companies worked on further refinements, and the cooling system is now in use.
Accelerating the pace of experimentation and innovation is one promise of additive manufacturing. But modern 3-D printing, Mr. Feldman said, also allows engineers to make new, complex designs that improve performance. “We couldn’t have made that water-cooling part any other way,” Mr. Feldman said.
“Additive manufacturing lets us rethink how we build things,” he said. “That’s where we are now, and that’s a big change.”