Production Ready – Desktop Metal prepares to unleash its Production System

This time a year ago, ahead of RAPID + TCT 2017, I was heading to see a company that everyone in the additive manufacturing (AM) world may have been talking about, but few knew many details. The name alone got tongues wagging “Desktop Metal? Metal 3D printing on your desktop? Surely not”.

Little did they know Desktop Metal housed some of the greatest minds in the industry and was gearing up to launch its first product, The Studio System – an office-friendly metal 3D printing system. In a bid to shift the paradigms of metal 3D printing Desktop Metal launched the $120,000 eco-system that took users from design to print through to post-processing and is capable of manufacturing in a host of previously unprintable metals.

Many companies in this industry and across the tech world have talked a good game in the quest for world domination, few, if any, have rolled out the strategy as quickly as Desktop Metal. In a conversation, CEO Ric Fulop explains how, in the twelve months since my visit, the Burlington, MA-based company has significantly ramped up operations:

“We’re almost two and a half times the size in comparison to a year ago; we now have 226 full-time employees, 200 of whom are engineers. At that time, we didn’t yet have any channel partners, today we have over 100 sales partners and resellers with distribution in over 40 countries. We had about $100m in funding last time we spoke, and today we have $277m, the latest is a $65m investment led by Ford Motor Company with their CTO joining our board.”

The stats kept pouring in; Desktop Metal began shipping the Studio System to its first Pioneer, Google’s ATAP Program in December 2017, with expanded shipping in 2018; the system has been granted two patents for the interface layer and separable support strategies, with over 100 patents pending covering more than 200 inventions; it’s expanded the HQ of 40,000 square feet to 60,000; and received a host of accolades including the Rising Star Award at the inaugural TCT Awards.

Building right

Stats are nice but as Ric tells me, Desktop Metal’s primary job is to “make the customers successful”. This can only be achieved by delivering on the promises of price, materials, ease-of-use, and speed. For Built-Rite Tool & Die, one of the pioneers of its Studio System, those boxes have been ticked.

Built-Rite, the mould-making and design firm with expertise in precision mould manufacturing, was initially enlisted to manufacture a plastic part of the Studio System used for ejecting the media cartridges. After experiencing first-hand the shorter lead times and reduced costs for quick-turn mould services available with the Studio System, Built-Rite soon realised that a metal 3D printing solution at this kind of price could transform the company’s prototyping and give them an edge over the overseas manufacturers that consistently drive down prices.

Built-Rite put the Studio System’s Bound Metal Deposition technology through its paces by identifying and replicating an existing mould insert previously made using CNC machining. The mould was printed, debound and sintered using the Desktop Metal Studio System. It was then finished using in-house grinding and EDM equipment to achieve the tolerances and surface finish required when it comes to injection moulding.

When compared to a third-party, quick-turn machines shop, the part 3D-printed with the Studio Systems was 41% lighter, 30% faster to manufacture and staggeringly 90% cheaper.

Live and kicking

With the Studio System launching and shipping in 2017, the start of 2018 saw Desktop Metal turn its attention to a software preview. Coming out of the recently formed DM Labs R&D project, Live Parts was unveiled in February. Ric Fulop is incredibly excited about the generative design tool created by Senior Software Engineer, Andy Roberts: “Andy is a pioneer in parametric modelling, he was a VP at PTC and designed many of the features in Pro/Engineer. He’d been thinking about this concept of applying cell-based growth principles to generative design for quite some time.”

Whereas many other generative design tools take the load cases of static inputs, Live Parts tackles transitional forces in between multiple load cases and looks at part assemblies in the context of multiphysics. On-screen demonstrations of Live Parts show components growing in what almost seems like a time lapse of plant-life.

“There’s a vacuum in 3D printing tools that enhance productivity,” Fulop suggests. “One of the many things that’s exciting about Live Parts is that it works for all 3D printing, whether you’re printing in plastics or metal, any system can take advantage of Live Parts, and as part of growing the industry, we would like to expose this tool to all.”.

Putting on a production

Desktop Metal used RAPID + TCT 2017 to launch the company to the world and the focus was very much on its Studio System’s ability to revolutionise metal prototyping. This year, the company has shifted its focus to metal 3D printing’s holy grail, production.

“The Production System is a much more complex, sophisticated system,” says Fulop. “It is almost five meters long and in terms of output is the equivalent of having 100 mid-ranged powder bed fusion machines. It is super fast, it produces parts with very high resolution at a cost that is dramatically lower than powder-bed fusion.”

The Production System cost-saving analysis is linked to the decision taken early on to separate the printing from the thermoprocessing. The separation allows Desktop Metal to leverage the much more mature Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) materials market. MIM materials, thanks to their abundance, are up to 80% cheaper than metal powders explicitly designed for 3D printing. The separation also means that Desktop Metal can utilise a host of alloys that fundamentally are not printable with powder-bed fusion’s welding type technology.

The Production System’s printing process is called Single Pass Jetting (SPJ), and its roots run deep into the history of 3D printing. Professor Emanuel (Ely) Sachs is a co-founder of Desktop Metal and is a crucial contributor to the SPJ project. While at MIT in the late 80s he created a core technology that permeates much of today’s 3D printing in binder jetting. The choice to use inkjet heads to jet a binder onto a powder 30 years ago is, according to Ely, only just beginning to realise its real potential.

“We went with binder jetting because it had a lot of flexibility regarding what materials you could build with,” remarks Sachs. “I wanted to move away from polymers and use ceramics and metals for functional parts and tooling, but the real clincher for me is I saw a path to creating a technology that could build parts quickly. The fact that you have a fundamental interest in metal 3D printing and tremendous advances in inkjet printing, which is now used to print books on demand, means we’re seeing a resurgence in binder jetting.”

These factors combined with the growth of the MIM industry meant that there was a clear path for SPJ to be at the core of a genuinely innovative development in metal 3D printing, recognised as such by the MIT Technology Review, Popular Science and the prestigious Edison Awards.

“The primary innovation in Single Pass Jetting is captured in the name,” explains Sachs. “If you look at the implementations of binder jet until very recently, they raster scan a printhead over a powder bed, while it is pretty fast it still might take 10 seconds to print each layer, plus you have to add on time to spread the layer. Firstly SPJ has dramatically increased the speed with which we can spread the powder and we’re printing in a single pass in both directions so the rates can be as high as the technology can support, and there is no lost time in retracting the printhead.”

For a long time, 3D printing has promised democratisation of manufacturing by affording smaller companies the chance to iterate and get products to market faster. While this may have happened to an extent in the world of plastics, the Production System may be about to do that for metal manufacturing.

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