Interview: Markforged’s Jon Reilly discusses a closed source material approach & metal 3D printing’s potential

In just under 30 minutes, Markforged’s VP of Product, Jon Reilly will take to the TCT Introducing Stage, a platform for exhibitors to update an open auditorium of show attendees on the newest instalments of their product portfolio.

Reilly, though, is reluctant to make a sales pitch when he goes to stand front and centre. He’d rather talk about the additive manufacturing (AM) industry and what needs to be done in order to gain more traction within the $12T manufacturing sector. He’ll use Markforged case studies to generate inspiration – how to save money and do things differently – but what’s immediately on his mind this morning is putting AM in some perspective.

“If you think about it, we’re barely getting started against our possible market size, and there’s lots of opportunities for everyone collectively, but a lot of things need to happen,” he notes. “You talk to these guys from aerospace, they’re just getting started on qualifying parts.”

That there’s still so much to do means the likes of Markforged are as busy as ever. Yet, on the face of it, 2018 has been a quiet year for the Massachusetts-based firm, at least in terms of product launches. Aside from the odd case study, being cleared of infringing on the IP of neighbours, Desktop Metal, and a couple of executive personnel additions, there’s been little to come out of Markforged in the proceeding nine months.

Perhaps it’s the calm before the storm. Last month, along with the addition of Bryan Semple and Brian Nadeau as CMO and VP of Engineering, respectively, the company announced it had leased an additional 80,000 square feet of space in Watertown for production, with room for a further 500 employees. It had outgrown its initial Watertown facility within a year.

In Watertown, Markforged develops all of its material products and software, while half an hour across Massachusetts it manufactures the hardware. It’s this close proximity of production locations that enables the company to keep atop of quality control, per Reilly.

Quality control is of the utmost importance to Markforged, and it’s why, for example, the company remains solely responsible for the manufacture of the materials compatible with its composite and metal systems. Reilly acknowledges the differing views on open and closed approaches regarding 3D printing materials, comparing it to Android versus Apple. You can have a bunch of contributors providing efforts in individual areas, or you can oversee everything yourselves, controlling all the inputs.

“I think both are incredibly viable methods of attacking the problem,” Reilly says, “but for a company of our size who needs to deliver really high-quality parts, it’s part of our core value proposition to our customers. Having control of all those inputs that I don’t have to go to some third party and then ask them to focus on some material change helps you get to a much better spot.

“I don’t know. If you’ve looked at other mature markets, at the end of the day, both approaches tend to succeed. I think we’re in the highest quality, most controlled camp because it yields the best parts. And parts are [all] anyone cares about.

“What you really want in a production environment is something that’s going to be reliable, it’s going to have particular outcomes, it’s going to be repeatable, and it’s going to work when you need it too. All of those things stack up to a lot of quality assurance and testing, a lot of validation, and making sure that every single part that goes into it is exactly what you expect it to be. And that yields a closed platform with a little less freedom of experimentation, but a lot more quality and repeatability.”

Trading off freedom of experimentation in favour of delivering quality and reliability comes as a direct consequence of Markforged conversing with manufacturers and meeting their high demands. All that is at the forefront of the company’s collective mind is to serve its customers with the technologies that enables the application designs they have produced.

The company deals with manufactures of cars and planes, water heats and valves and couplings, so there’s a range of demands that Markforged then has to assort and incorporate into its product roadmap. What stays the same throughout all these sectors is the requirement of tools, jigs and fixtures. “On the composites side,” Reilly examples, “the biggest return on investment you can get is using us in a tooling application on a manufacturing line. Those people pay for their printers in like a month. We can do that tooling faster and cheaper than you could do it before, so that is our primary application which stretches across a wide variety of market segments.”

If you take a vertical market well-attuned to these technologies, and one, at that, wanting to reduce weight and increase the strength of components, then the application will stray beyond the low-hanging fruit of tooling parts. Aerospace, as alluded to by Reilly earlier, has lengthy qualification processes to overcome for many of its components – prolonged even more when a new manufacturing process is introduced – but there’s still plenty of applications where Markforged can derive immediate value today. Taking that into consideration, the manufacturers in that industry must be making materials requests.  

“The big, obvious one is a V-0 matrix material for composites – V-0 is a flammability rating, UL94 is the particular specification. Our composite material is a carbon fibre-filled Nylon – Nylons are traditionally around V-2 which means under certain conditions they can propagate flame, which you don’t want in an aircraft,” Reilly says. “Because we make such lightweight, strong parts, they’d like to put us in flight applications that pay for fuel, but they are using us extensively in their manufacturing applications today.

“It’s a great opportunity for composites, and they’re some of the most educated composites customers there are.”

And then there’s metal, which can not only pick up the slack when a composite material won’t cut it on an application but is also gradually coming down the cost curve: Markforged’s Metal X platform, for example, costs around the $100,000 mark. Reilly references components like tooling parts, where the higher heat resistance and harder surfaces are enjoyed, as well as injection moulding inserts and print tool steels – low-to-mid volume applications.

There’s a big opportunity here, Reilly emphasises, offering the following example to stress the point.

“If you think about a plastic part, an injection mould, I have a hard time imagining a future where an additive manufacturing platform is going to make plastic parts as quickly as you could injection mould them in a 16-cavity water cooler injection mould that’s constantly ejecting plastic parts, making them shape at a time, not layer at a time. It’s a pretty refined technology,” offers Reilly. “Now the problem with it, of course, is the wait time on the mould and the design time it takes to make your part.

“Metal is a different story. Take a stainless-steel component. In investment casting, you’re breaking that mould off the part every time. It starts with a wax figure, you dip it in ceramics, fire it, burn out the wax, then you pour the stainless steel into the cast, and then you literally break the mould off the outside of it.  

“There’s a lot of opportunity to do that faster and more affordably than has previously been done,” he continues. “I think on the metal side of things there’s more of a chance and more places where you’ll have economically viable solutions that become the go-to for making types of parts, and then of course across all of additive manufacturing in general, you get greater design flexibility, so you can start to design things like they should be designed, optimally designed with less constraint due to the process.”

Thus, the company promises to continue its investment in metal 3D printing, scaling its portfolio in similar fashion to the composites side of the business, which comprises six machines and a range of industrial-grade materials. Currently, the Metal X is only compatible with 17-4 PH stainless steel, but there are aluminium materials in R&D, and tool steels, coppers and titaniums currently in beta, to be commercially available in the near future. It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if another metal machine was to be released soon after: “We’re always working on additional technologies and more compelling line-ups to bring value to customers. We’ll continue to do that.”

Reilly had to be inventive while delivering a presentation on a stage designed to launch new products at the recent TCT Show, framing Markforged case studies in the context of the wider (additive) manufacturing market. That shouldn’t be a problem next time.

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