If all the other kids were jumping off a bridge, would you? If all the rest of the internet was talking about Desktop Metal, would you?
The bridge thing, hopefully not, but let’s talk about Desktop Metal. We heard about the company in 2015 when out of nowhere the newly-founded enterprise started racking up some high-profile investments; we’re not talking a couple hundred curious dollars here or there, but millions coming from giants whose reputations can be as important as the money they pump in. Investment figures jumped again last year and leapt up to approach the $100 million mark earlier this year. All this money poured in before the Massachusetts-based company tipped its hand to show the technology it was developing, leaving the public at large to base most knowledge off its not-quite-a-giveaway name. We knew the company was working on metal additive manufacturing and, well, that at least some of that would be a desktop technology. Beyond that, we worked from assurances from the likes of GE Ventures, Google, and Stratasys, which were all among the 2015-early 2017 investors.
And then April 2017 hit, and Desktop Manufacturing has been out there, guns blazing. It was less than a month ago that the company formally introduced its two metal 3D printing systems to the world, unveiling the DM Studio System and DM Production System. Since then, the company has been impossible to ignore for anyone paying any attention at all to additive manufacturing.
Desktop Metal was the loudest voice in the utter cacophony that was last week’s RAPID + TCT, an impressive achievement in North America’s largest 3D printing-focused tradeshow that this year drew more than 300 exhibiting companies, somewhere north of 6,000 attendees, and what felt (and still feels) like a total avalanche of announcements. A major sponsor of the show, Desktop Metal even lent its name to the on-site WiFi and the lanyards around many attendees’ necks, as well as holding a regular place in keynotes and press conferences and staffing its own swarming booth throughout the week.
When I was younger and Disney Stores were ubiquitous in malls, a popular pastime among cooler-than-thou teenagers was “The Disney Store Game” in which the objective was to walk into a Disney Store, all the way to the stuffed toy bin in the back, and then back through, exiting the store following a full-length visit without having an employee ask how you were doing or if you needed help, so great were the stores’ reputations for in-your-face cheery helpfulness. Walking through RAPID this year might have had a similar game: try to walk through any part of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center without encountering Desktop Metal. This game would have been much more difficult, indeed, than the one my peers played a decade (fine, two decades) ago, so pervasive was the company’s presence and influence. So pervasive, in fact, that even upon leaving RAPID and attending an entirely different show in a different city, I was confronted with signs for Desktop Metal in Chicago at Dassault’s 3DEXPERIENCE Additive Manufacturing Symposium on Monday as it appears this week at Science in the Age of Technology at the booth for reseller Caelynx.
So, fine: let’s talk about Desktop Metal, the elephant in the 3D printed room.
What does Desktop Metal offer?
In the near term, the DM Studio System is a desktop-based metal 3D printing solution purportedly so accessible it can be used for in-office additive manufacturing. This system is based on the company’s proprietary Bound Metal Deposition (BMD) 3D printing process, which is comparable to FDM technology with extruded rods of bound metal. Starting at a $120K price point, the system is relatively accessible in terms of cost, and is available now for pre-order, requiring a $1K reserve deposit. Initial systems will ship to Pioneer Partners this August, with general reserves shipping in Q4.
Coming next year is the Single Pass Jetting (SPJ)-based DM Production System, which is, well, designed for production-level metal 3D printing. Addressing limitations in cost and time, the DM Production System is said to deliver at a 20x-lower cost speeds up to 100x the speeds of laser-based systems. This system is coming in 2018, but for $5K you can put in a reserve for one now.
Both systems will require use of a furnace to sinter printed metals, but the draw is that that’s about all that they’ll require. A major selling point of Desktop Metal’s technologies comes in the cutback on post-processing, as supports can be removed by hand — unheard-of in the metal world.
Why does it have our attention?
It’s not just because it’s everywhere, that’s for sure. A few names have been everywhere before in the 3D printing industry, and that hasn’t always meant they were the belle of the ball. Most often in today’s world of speak-your-mind-the-internet-is-listening when a company’s name is trending it’s because they forced someone off an airplane or a customer discovered octopus-looking-possibly-mold in a container, not because they’re awarding #NuggsforCarter (though that happens, too). In additive manufacturing, the company name on everyone’s lips is often due to a high-profile failure as the industry has become more cynical this side of the hype curve. Kickstarters come and, more often, go, and startups can flounder without proper business sense backing them; major companies are still fighting an uphill battle of trust issues with consumers and customers who disagreed with rotating leadership or moves away from (often open-sourced) roots. So far, Desktop Metal has avoided all of this backlash.
Founded in 2015, the team behind the new technology would be hard-pressed to have finer additive manufacturing pedigrees, with experience tracing back 30 years to real early days of the industry. Desktop Metal notes that it is “rooted in R&D” and “motivated by curiosity” — and collaborations have been key to progress for the company since before its official beginnings, as CEO and Co-Founder Ric Fulop started the collaborations that would lead to DM in 2013. Progress is not a linear process, but Desktop Metal has been taking its journey step by step and not announcing anything until it was ready.
And now it’s ready to talk, Desktop Metal is screaming it from the mountains.
Desktop Metal at RAPID + TCT
Again, DM was everywhere last week. I had to push back my initial interview time with Fulop — because we both had to attend a press conference instead, in which I listened and Fulop spoke as Stratasys announced its latest hardware offering alongside an expansion to its long-standing partnership with Desktop Metal. I caught up with the Stratasys team later to chat about what the announcements meant to them, as Roger Kelesoglu told me:
“This is a good thing for our customers, for channels to bring to market. It’s an evolution of our relationship; now is the time to announce as they unveil their products. We’re very early in that, as we work with partners. We’ll see that evolve over time. We have work to do, to introduce the right customers to the right technology. We’re now at the beginning of introducing this technology which is very compelling, as we strengthen our channel and the options and choices our customers have.”
I spoke as well to Desktop Metal partner company Jabil, which presents a well-balanced view of the industry as the contract manufacturing giant remains ever pragmatic about new technologies and business approaches. John Dulchinos told me of the collaborative partner:
“Desktop Metal is an interesting technology. We’re about two to three years out before it gets adopted.”
He continued, “Desktop Metal is the first platform with the potential to change at scale. It’s a great team, one of the best in the industry. We are confident to stay the course.”
Fulop appeared on the main stage at RAPID several times, including in his own presentation with a DM Studio System printing beside him. This was followed with a panel entitled “New Frontiers in Metal 3D Printing” alongside representatives from Lowe’s Innovation Labs, Caterpillar, and Jabil. In this panel, Fulop explained of some of his company’s potential and positioning:
“Most Fortune 500 companies don’t have a metal 3D printer, think about that. Metal printing’s been tiny, it’s been an inaccessible and expensive process. It’s going to become more accessible, easier to use, and so hopefully more people will use the technology.”
The Desktop Metal team accepted the SME Community Award for People’s Choice, which was voted on and awarded to the company deemed most interactive, aesthetic, and engaging at the show. The technology was additionally mentioned as industry analysts Todd Grimm and Terry Wohlers discussed the technology; Grimm pointed to Desktop Metal as an emerging company in the metals space and Wohlers later said of the company in his keynote:
“I took a close look at Desktop Metal a few weeks ago and also here; it’s really interesting. The binder jetting machine really got my attention mainly due to speed and capacity. Removing supports really is as simple as tapping a part on a tabletop… Competition is good. If more competition reduces cost and improves speed, then competition is good. I am really impressed by the team Ric has put together: MIT engineers/professors, PhDs. This is something to look at if you haven’t yet.”
About the technology itself, Wohlers commented, “The jury is still out until customers provide feedback to confirm what we see; l’m looking forward to these systems rolling out.“
When I did make my way to the busy DM booth, I caught up with Fulop as he was constantly on the move, as well as Rick Chin, Co-Founder and VP, Software Development, and Mark Sowerbutts, Senior Program Manager, to learn more about the systems directly from the source.
“The premise is to make metal fabrication more accessible, easy to operate, in an inexpensive machine and material all tied together with software,” Chin told me of the turnkey, cloud-based software that may or may not ultimately be named Fabricator.
The software works by representing, in 3D, progress of the entire process, from printing to debinding to sintering. The entire system is cloud-based, and supports 14 native file formats as of now. Chin showed me a quick demo of the software experience, through which any angle of the build can be observed and manipulated, allowing for close inspection prior to hitting print and for the optimization of any particular parameter a user might prioritize in a given build. For faster printing speeds, a quick tug on one slider will enhance that quality while adapting the other parameters accordingly; similarly, if one wants to use fewer supports or to optimize space on the print bed, sliders can adjust for these priorities as well.
“At a glance you can get a sense of much of this,” Chin explained. “These sliders show comparisons for orientation. You can look at the part or supports, optimize by parameter. On the Fabrication Instruction Page, you just go to the Job Setup Page, where it will automatically nest parts, then send to print. It’s built as a responsive web application.”
The sintering process is a critical step, and Sowerbutts showed me the furnace for the system, noting that final, sintered, parts will be about 20% smaller than what comes off the print bed. The entire furnace system, he noted, was built with “an eye to the user experience.” The bell jar style furnace features space to build up material parts up to 10 kilos, and the system is smart enough to know what it’s sintering, automatically adapting the cycle to run the correct time, temperature, etc. Following use testing, the team even added a mirror in the back, as they realized that people often drop things, especially when working with small parts and configurable systems, so they kept every component as user-friendly as possible. It’s even delivery driver-friendly; the furnace uses onboard gas, which the system will automatically detect to ensure that the correct gas is used for the correct metal — and every tank is shippable via common carriers including UPS and FedEx, keeping the supply chain accessible for users.
Away from the hubbub of the main booth, I caught a quiet moment to chat as well with Fulop to ask about his reaction to Desktop Metal’s reception.
“We’re loving it,” he said with a grin. “We love talking to customers, this is what gets us excited. It’s why we do this. We’re excited to get our new product out, changing the way people make metal. We’re talking with Caterpillar, Jabil, BMW, and other customers we can’t talk about right now.
We have a product that on one hand is the first system that lets you print metal in an office. We have unique propositions for a niche in the market that’s underserved. For our Production System, on the other hand, we leverage our microwave sintering technology. It’s very good.”
Who’s working with Desktop Metal?
For the sake of brevity at this point, I’m inclined to start a list of who isn’t working with Desktop Metal.
As collaboration picks up across the additive manufacturing board, partnerships are coming more clearly into focus as the best way forward to advance the technology and the industry itself. Desktop Metal has gotten the memo. Following announcements of investments and early partnerships, last week at RAPID we heard of more companies working with Desktop Metal. The momentum isn’t close to slowing down, as yesterday we talked with FATHOM as the advanced manufacturer announced its new collaboration as a manufacturing service center and a sales partner. As Michael Duncan told us:
“It is really exciting to partner with Desktop Metal because we get the opportunity to connect a broader engineering and manufacturing market with a lower barrier-of-entry solution for metal additive technologies. What is possible with current metal 3D printing equipment is exciting but it is still cost prohibitive so the adoption of metal 3D printing is slow. We know that the market is more than ready for a system that is both office friendly and economically accessible. Now, more design and engineering teams will have the opportunity to explore what’s possible with metal 3D printing and many new application innovations will develop at a much faster rate.”
Purple Platypus announced one week ago that they are a Diamond Level reseller for Desktop Metal, with Mark Swart explaining of the relationship:
“Desktop Metal’s products will unleash the pent-up demand for metal printing and Purple Platypus is uniquely positioned to bring this technology to market with superior sales, application and field service support. We are extremely excited about our partnership with Desktop Metal. These new product offerings are unlike existing metal printing technologies which come with intense facility requirements and intense machining requirements to free each part of its support structure. Desktop Metal’s approach works in a standard environment and needs no machining to free the part from its supports. This dovetails perfectly with our Stratasys product offering where the entire process has been considered and optimized. Not just the printing component.”
Another day, another partner as Desktop Metal continues its progress this week; GoEngineer has announced today that they are partnering to offer the full line of Desktop Metal’s systems.
“I asked hundreds of questions trying to poke holes in their technology. I couldn’t!” said Tyler Reid. “GoEngineer is proudly partnering with Desktop Metal to offer their full lineup of machines.”
While potential customers can order systems directly through Desktop Metal, which has an FAQ detailing customer queries for the current reservation system, partners offer valuable support options throughout the lifetime of a machine. Desktop Metal is open to further sales partnerships, as the company notes:
“Desktop Metal is building the industry’s strongest network of Sales Partners. We are committed to enabling the best sales and service for our customers through lasting relationships and close partnerships.”
What’s next for Desktop Metal?
That’s the hundred-million-dollar question.
Metal 3D printing is the current industry darling, as the segment is the fastest-growing in revenues and competitive landscape and offers incredible potential for a broad variety of industries, from manufacturing to aerospace. Optimized parts are possible through additive manufacturing that have not historically been possible through subtractive techniques. The benefits are increasingly well known as more players flock to hardware and software offerings and customers explore metal AM for prototyping and, more and more often, production use.
What will it take for Desktop Metal to become the darling of the industry darling? Investment? Check. Attention? Check. An extensive collaborative network with well-known partners? Check. Technology out in the field for regular use among a broad base of customers? I guess we’ll see.
Share your thoughts in the Desktop Metal forum at 3DPB.com.
[All photos: Sarah Goehrke / Videos: Desktop Metal]