3D printing's next act: big metal objects
A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.
Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.
- A new method from a startup called Seurat Technologies — using a powerful laser technique — could be the breakthrough the industry has been waiting for.
- If Seurat's method can be used on a large scale, fragile U.S. supply chains could be reimagined using low-cost “print depots” to manufacture parts domestically, at high volume, where and when they're needed.
Context: Today's metal 3D printing works by shining a laser onto a thin layer of metal powder, melting it and welding it to the layer below.
- The digital design gradually takes shape as the layers accumulate and the object grows.
- It's an extremely slow process, however. Even with multiple lasers, 3D metal printing hasn't accelerated fast enough to produce auto parts and consumer electronics in high numbers.
What's new: The technology from Seurat — named for the painter Georges Seurat, who studied the science of light and pioneered the style known as pointillism — speeds things up by splitting a single, high-powered laser beam into as many as 2.3 million beams of light.
- A 30 kW laser is patterned with high-resolution images that can be programmed to block or let light through each of its pixels.
- Every pixel defines its own laser spot, so the system can weld a large area of metal powder in an instant — allowing a multi-layered object to take shape 10 times faster than today's 3D printing technology.
- "And it's not even the beginning of what we can do," Seurat CEO and co-founder James DeMuth tells Axios.
- Seurat's technology, he says, is to 3D printing what the printing press was to pen and paper.
The backstory: The idea of pixelating a laser beam can be traced to the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory more than a decade ago, as DeMuth writes in a blog post.
- He and other researchers were working on an entirely different problem — energy fusion — but the challenge was to design a reaction chamber that could withstand the extreme temperature swings that happen when lasers are used to produce energy.
- After much trial and error, they adapted a patterned light method that was already in development at Livermore Labs for other purposes.
- By 2015, DeMuth and Erik Toomre — a co-founder of Seurat — had proved that the technology would work for metal 3D printing, too. The company licensed the technology from Livermore Labs in January 2016.
What's next: Seurat, based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, says it has deals with seven of the world’s largest automotive, aerospace, energy and industrial companies to begin commercializing the technology this year.
- The company has raised $78 million — including a $21 million Series B round extension announced Wednesday.
- Its newest investors are Xerox Ventures and SIP Global Partners, which joined Capricorn’s Technology Impact Fund, DENSO, True Ventures, GM Ventures, Porsche Automobil Holding SE, Siemens Energy and Maniv Mobility.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 19.