We recently had the pleasure of paying a visit to the Massachusetts-based headquarters of Desktop Metal, the pioneering 3D printing company that is making affordable metal 3D printing a reality. Check out our in-depth tour of the facilities and exclusive interview with co-founder Jonah Myerberg.
When one thinks of Boston, one typically thinks of prestigious universities, the legendary New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, or perhaps even the infamously historical tossing of tea into the Boston Harbor. At All3DP, however, our mind tends to drift towards the groundbreaking 3D printing startup Desktop Metal.
A mere three years ago, a small team of six people full of big ideas embarked on an adventure to revolutionize metal 3D printing. But their big ideas were not unwarranted. After raising $277 million in funding over the last few years, their dreams are becoming a reality.
Desktop Metal has grown at an impressive rate, and they undoubtedly have the support of some key investors (such as BMW, Google Ventures, Ford, and many other big names). And with how they are paving the way for affordable metal 3D printing, it’s easy to see why the company seems to magnetize funding.
The industrial-scale Production System is still under wraps, with a release date set for next year. The desktop-sized Studio System, however, is up and running, shipping to those with reservations this past December. Amidst all of the excitement seeping out of the Desktop Metal headquarters, All3DP was invited to sit down with Co-Founder Jonah Myerberg (front right) and get an inside look to their operations.
Desktop Metal is taking a unique approach to take this cost and complexity out of the picture via their two systems: the Studio System and the Production System.
One major component of the company’s early success is their attention to detail. From the aesthetics of metal material to the software engineering and monitoring, every aspect of the ecosystem is actively being perfected. This is possible because 80 percent of their team is made up of engineers, resulting in 200 engineers working towards making the Studio System and the Production System the best on every front.
For a final assurance that 3D printed part match the original CAD file, they even go so far as to 3D scan the part and compare it to the original drawing. Just one more example of how Desktop Metal is going above and beyond to master metal additive manufacturing.
The Studio System
The printing process for the Studio System consists of three stages: 3D printing, debinding, and sintering.
The Studio System uses an FDM style of 3D printing. Wait, FDM? But extruding metal this way must require a bit of magic, right? Metal is a sturdy, durable, heavy material. It’s not something you can melt down and squeeze through a tube. Or so we thought…
One of the innovations of Desktop Metal is that they figured out a way around this. By mixing metal powder with a polymer, they are able to do the impossible and extrude metal, just like is so commonly done with plastics.
Step two focuses on removing this polymer-based binder. Their “secret sauce” is their debinding solution. While they were unwilling to share their precious recipe, they did divulge that they have resident chemical engineers constantly perfecting the solution to ensure it’s the best it can be. This solution removes 50% of the polymer, leaving just enough to keep the model held together.
Step three finalizes the 3D printed product. It removes the rest of the polymer and sinters the metal particles together. Take a look at the image below. On the left, we have the part after stage one in its “green state”. The middle shows the product after sintering. The right shows the product after it’s been sent through an external polisher.
To make this unprecedented process possible, Desktop Metal mixes powdered metal with a polymer. “Once put the binder in , it holds its form nicely and you can shape it into whatever you’d like,” Myerberg explains.
When the part is in its “green state”, it has an unforeseen advantage. Because it is still full of polymer, it is still quite malleable. This allows you to manipulate the part before it becomes a sturdy metal. This can be hugely advantageous for adding small details, such as threads, which are typically difficult to 3D print.
For the materials themselves, a glance at the the company’s website shows a current offering of 30 different materials. This is an exciting start. But according to Myerberg, Desktop Metal “has access to hundreds that like to eventually get in to.”
Another big way Desktop Metal sets themselves apart is their use of a ceramic interface for support structures. The Studio System is a double extruding system with one arm for the chosen metal, and one for ceramic. By adding 1-2 layers of ceramic at the interface of the support and the part, the print maintains the strength and support, without welding the support onto the finished product during sintering. The furnace then removes these ceramic layers, enabling you to remove the supports by hand.
Desktop Metal’s software is also an impressive feat. With a humble appreciation for the common man, they designed the software to be user-friendly so that anyone can make the most of it. On one hand, it has options for specifying each and every parameter for the experts. However, it also has simple options for various automated optimizations.
Once you upload the CAD file and select the material, the software analyzes the print options based on the following features: Fabrication Time, Material Required, and Surface Quality. With an eye catching green-to-red scale, you can see which orientation is the best in a matter of seconds.
Once you select between these simple choices, the software then automatically determines the scaling required to return a final product identical to the CAD file, taking into account the shrinkage that occurs in the sintering phase.
The software also intelligently accounts for the shrinkage that occurs during sintering. This shrinkage is inevitable considering the space taken up by polymer has to be filled with something. The software appropriately analyses your CAD file to determine when and how much the design should be enlarged to ensure the final product matches the original file.
The best part? This advanced processing is all done behind the scenes and you needn’t give it a second thought.
Desktop Metal has never ceased to shoot for the stars. With their initial dream of developing an affordable metal 3D printer becoming a reality, they now can consider the different applications and use cases, along with their partnering companies.
The biggest of these, in more ways than one, is the automotive industry. With electric cars capturing an increasing portion of the automotive industry, the weight of the vehicle will become of greater importance. The current method to create many automotive parts is injection molding, which creates a solid metal gear, for instance. But what if you could produce a part that has a lesser fill where there is no load? By redesigning the vehicle parts based on load placement, you can reduce a significant portion of metal and the total weight of the mechanism.
Intrigued? Well, Ford and BMW certainly are. These leading automotive companies were early investors in Desktop Metal. With their eyes set on the Production System, these companies are each partnering with Desktop Metal to revolutionize the automotive industry.
And the metal 3D printing revolution doesn’t stop there. Mobile phone companies, tooling companies, the oil industry and construction equipment manufacturers, e.g. Caterpillar, also see the potential that Desktop Metal is offering. The latter pair are specifically interested in developing a zero-inventory workflow, which would allow them to instead have 3D printers located around the world to print parts on-demand.
Another thing that stood out when looking at Desktop Metal’s quality assurance technique is the print farm they have on-site. This is not only to print parts for customers, but they do test prints on each and every printer before it gets shipped out. They ensure it is running optimally before shipping it out to the customer.
Why It Is Affordable
Of course, one of the primary ways Desktop Metal sets their metal 3D printers apart from the pack is the incredibly affordable price. So we had to ask how they can set theirs 3D printers at a tenth of the price of the metal additive manufacturing systems currently on the market.
The answer comes in three parts:
- The toxicity of the material contained in a malleable polymer.
- The allowance of oxygen until the final step.
- The cost of the equipment itself.
Powdered metal is a rather hazardous substance to deal with. It can be quite toxic if ingested (and with the fineness of the powder this can be hard to avoid). Desktop Metal’s printers combats this by adhering the powder to a polymer, leaving no powder to fly about and invade your lungs.
Additionally, the system allows oxygen in the process up until sintering. This allows for cheaper materials, as oxygen free metal powder is awfully expensive to produce, as well as cheaper equipment, as the printing environment mustn’t be anaerobic. This further allows the equipment to be scaled down and modeled more after an FDM 3D printer.
To say the least, we were definitely impressed with what we saw during our visit to Desktop Metal. They have a blazing passion that drives them, and if you combine that with a groundbreaking price and a focus on accessibility, you have the perfect recipe for success.
Desktop Metal has the ongoing goal to revolutionize the metal 3D printing industry, and we at All3DP believe they are doing just that.
We look forward to seeing if the Production System lives up to its hype next year!