100x faster, 10x cheaper: 3D metal printing is about to go mainstream

A start-up called Desktop Metal has developed 3D printers that can produce metal objects safely, in smaller spaces and for a lower cost than traditional manufacturing, which requires expensive machinery, lots of floor space and risky physical labour.

The company closed a US $115 million round of venture funding to deliver its first batch of machines to customers within the U.S., founder and CEO Ric Fulop announced recently. The series D investment brings Desktop Metal’s total capital raised to US $212 million. The deal values the company at more than US $1 billion, sources familiar with the deal confirmed.

Investors include venture firms such as NEA and Lux Capital betting on advanced technologies and corporations likely to use the start-up’s printers in their own operations. Corporate backers include BMW, GE Ventures, GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Lowe’s and Techtronic Industries, which own Hoover, Dirt Devil, Ryobi and other power tool and appliance brands.

Desktop Metal “Studio System”. Desktop Metal has developed a metal-making 3D printer that can, well, fit on a desk. The piece of equipment on the right is the company’s furnace that uses thermal heat and microwaves to sinter the part

“This team developed a product that solves a very technologically complex problem in about 18 months,” said Dayna Grayson, a tech investor with NEA. “We re-upped our investment seeing their ability to execute, and because we believe there’s a very large, addressable market here.”

Last year, the entire additive manufacturing industry produced US $5.1 billion in revenue, with just about US $1 billion attributed to metal 3D printing, according to the Wohlers Report 2016. But additive manufacturing is expected to grow across the board, Grayson said, especially in aerospace and automotive.

Desktop Metal’s machines work by binding metal and ceramic powders into a soft polymer. They extrude layers of this mixture to make an object, which is then placed into a furnace for what the company calls “microwave-enhanced sintering.” The polymer burns off there, and the metal fuses together without losing its shape. Ceramic layers keep metal parts from fusing wherever a designer wanted to separate pieces.

The printed objects are ready to use out of the furnace, no retooling required, Fulop said. They are comparable to cast metal parts in terms of structural integrity, he said.

Desktop Metal is shipping its first Studio system printer to customers this fall. The system, which can be purchased for about US $120 000 or leased for about US $3 250 per month, is designed for engineers who want to rapidly develop and test hardware prototypes in their office or lab.

The Desktop Metal Production system will ship next year to businesses that mass produce metal parts and want to use 3D printers on the factory floor. It will cost around US $420 000.

The Burlington, Massachusetts-based company, which employs about 150 people full time, has focused on the US market so far.

“We have seen demand from all around the world,” Fulop said. “But the US is still where we see the most demand, and that is to be expected. This country is very much the leader in research, design and innovation for hardware, whether you’re talking about autonomous vehicles or consumer electronics.”

Given the new funding round, Desktop Metal will explore international expansion in 2018. But one of the CEO’s goals is to give the US manufacturing sector a boost.