July 09, 2016      

Desktop Metal, which is working on affordable 3D metal printing, this week received $2 million in investment from GE Ventures and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures.

Lexington, Mass.-based Desktop Metal said it plans to use the latest funding to expand its staff to 50 and continue product development. The company was founded last year and wants to refine additive manufacturing to make it more widely available.

“Our company is focused on the barriers that hold metal 3D printing back: price, performance, and variety of materials. Today’s technology is where computing was in the 1970s. It’s too costly and cumbersome to scale,” said Ric Fulop, co-founder and CEO of Desktop Metal. “We want to bring an everyday-use metal 3D printing solution to the workspace of every engineering team.”

General Electric Co. and The Boeing Co. have already been using 3D printing to produce jet-engine and other aircraft parts. Interest in the technology has also moved from prototyping to production for healthcare, customized consumer goods, construction, and food, but scale and price are still issues.

A hub of robotics investment

GE recently moved its headquarters to the Boston area, near Desktop Metal. In addition to other robotics companies, GE Ventures has supported Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc., which makes collaborative robots Baxter and Sawyer.

The staff of Desktop Metal includes MIT professors and veterans from other CAD (computer-aided design) and 3D-printing companies.

Third round of funding

Desktop Metal last October raised $14 million from venture capital firms and Stratasys Inc., which developed the fused deposition modeling (FDM) process.

Including the $34 million it raised in Series B funding in April, Desktop Metal has raised a total of about $52 million so far.

The company is still working on an actual small-scale 3D printer for metal and other substances.

3D metal printing market heats up

The Virtual Foundry LLC in Stoughton, Wis., last year launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to bring 3D metal printing to desktops.

Virtual Foundry is among the companies offering 3D metal printing.

Virtual Foundry’s process creates fully metal 3D-printed objects.

Unlike other companies, which are experimenting with mixing metal powders with polylactic acid (PLA) filaments for FDM printing, Virtual Foundry’s patented Filamet technology is mostly metal, and its process leaves an entirely metal object.

In addition, Alcoa Inc. this week opened a facility near Pittsburgh to produce metal powder for 3D printing. Alcoa has received an order from Airbus Group for 3D-printed titanium aircraft components that it will fulfill later this year.

Alcoa has built up its additive manufacturing capabilities through its acquisition of RTI International Metals last year and a $60 million expansion at the Alcoa Technical Center.

Space and beyond for 3D metal printing

The Juno space probe, which arrived at Jupiter this week after five years’ travel through space, contains some 3D-printed parts and was assembled by Lockheed Martin. Soon, the technology will be easier to use than by just rocket scientists.

3D printing could shorten supply chains and help small and midsize enterprises be competitive. However, it remains to be seen whether offshore outsourcing and globalization trends are actually reversed by 3D printing. Since consumer desktop 3D printing hasn’t spread as rapidly as some hoped, not every organization is bullish on the technology.

HP Inc. has been taking some time planning to incorporate 3D printing and the Internet of Things (IoT) into its next generation of services and products.

Ottawa-based 3DPrintler.com recently received a seven-figure private investment, but the company said it received “no help” from the Canadian government.

The 3D printing service-comparison site has launched a $100,000 “pre-seed” investment fund for IoT startups.

More on 3D Printing:

Some 3D printing applications are of interest to the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Energy has signed an agreement with San Franciso-based Transcend Robotics.

Transcend Robotics and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will work together to determine how 3D printing can affordably provide replacement parts and tooling for Transcend’s mobile robots.

“We are excited to work with the leading experts at ORNL to leverage advanced additive manufacturing to lower the cost of critical ARTI [Articulated Traction Control] components,” said Phil Walker, CEO of Transcend Robotics. “This enables applications of mobile robotics across more industries while keeping production in the United States.”