What makes a company smart? That’s a remarkably subjective question, of course, but most responses would come back to a few key points that set the smartest operations apart: innovation; vision; realistic approach to that vision; channels of funding, collaborating, getting word out — and, of course, having the intelligence in strategy to stand apart from the crowd as an endeavor that will still be around, bigger and better, in the years to come. There’s a certain It factor among what some are calling superstar companies, and each year the MIT Technology Review shares their editors’ list of the 50 Smartest Companies; inclusion isn’t based only on the powerful, well-known giants of business and industry; as David Rotman with the publication shares, “it’s not merely a list of today’s biggest or most profitable players.”
We’ve followed their reports as 3D printing companies have been making appearances over recent years. The 2017 list of the 50 Smartest Companies has been released, and it should come as little surprise that two familiar names are in the top 20, with Carbon coming in at #18 and Desktop Metal hot on its heels at #19.
“The list is our best guess as to which firms will be the dominant companies of the future. Amazon and Facebook and Google are on it, but so are plenty of newcomers. Though they might be unfamiliar to you today, we believe they have an inside track to take advantage of the technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that will define business in the coming years. Being smart about innovation won’t guarantee that these firms become superstars. But it does, at least, give them the potential to create and dominate new markets in an increasingly competitive business environment,” Rotman explains.
Several other major names that have high-profile involvement with additive manufacturing also make the cut, as we see Carbon’s partner adidas at #38, while GE shows up at #40 — while GE Additive is not noted on the list summary, it is noted that the company’s focus lately has been in “investing aggressively in forward-looking industries like wind and renewable energy and building up its data-driven services,” and of course we’ve recently heard about GE’s intent to build the world’s largest metal 3D printer.
This is California-based Carbon’s second year appearing on the Smartest Companies list, jumping up quite a few places from last year’s listing at #32. While it had no figure other than the $141M raised for valuation in 2016, this year the MIT Technology Review values Carbon at $1 billion and says of its inclusion:
“Using its process for rapidly printing objects with high-performance polymers like polyurethanes and epoxies, four-year-old Carbon is pursuing an approach fundamentally different from other methods of 3-D printing, which put down layers of plastic one at a time. The company says this technology enables it to print polymer objects rapidly, in some cases thousands of times faster than other 3-D printers, and use a wider range of materials, including rubber-like elastomers and durable, hard plastics. Carbon has a growing number of clients, including Adidas (No. 38), which is using its technology to manufacture elastomer midsoles for athletic shoes. Other customers are using it to print parts for electric motorcycles, server farms, and cooling systems, all of which have been difficult to make with other methods.”
At RAPID last year and this year, and at last year’s TCT Show, I had the opportunity to meet with the Carbon team and check out its materials, as well as see the shoes created with adidas. A consistent focus at Carbon has been on their customers, whose needs and feedback they prioritize in material and product development. The recently introduced SpeedCell system, for instance, came about due to what Valerie Buckingham, Carbon’s Vice President of Marketing, called “huge demand from our customers” as we chatted, while the partnership with adidas is “good because it’s concrete, it’s credible.”
“This is real manufacturing at scale where it has to be amazing, it has to work at scale,” she told me.
Carbon has been working to bring 3D printing beyond prototyping and into production; while prototyping will always be a critical step in product development, this company is focusing on moving forward with Industry 4.0, emphasizing final part production.
“Instead of only using 3D printing for prototyping, our customers are able to make iterations on final end-use parts and are have the ability to do low to medium volume production runs. This new approach vastly improves customization and allows designers more freedom than ever before. This is a small percentage of the industry right now, but will continue to grow massively in the next few years and we aim to be very much involved,” CEO and Co-Founder Joseph DeSimone, PhD told me in an interview in December. “The entire industry is moving toward 3D manufacturing, iterating in real-time and using 3D tech to manufacture functional parts that can be used right away. Industry 4.0 is moving at a fast ‘CLIP’ and it shows no signs of slowing down.”
Dr. DeSimone followed up with us more recently, telling 3DPrint.com in March, “Over the last couple of years, we have been selling the idea (and reality) of producing real parts using CLIP technology. The launch of SpeedCell is an extension of that. We are doing something very different here. There is a fundamental shift in the manufacturing process. Traditionally it’s been design, prototype, tool, produce. When you think about 3D printing up to this point, everyone has been designing parts on a fabrication tool that doesn’t allow you to scale it up. That’s prototyping. But we’re finding with our customers, when you design on the means of production, you can eliminate prototyping and tooling stages altogether.”
The drive and initiative shown at Carbon is beginning to crystallize in realizable results, as demonstrated through the work with adidas in scale manufacturing. We’ll see how the release of the adidas Futurecraft 4D shoes goes, as the announced goals include production of 100,000 pairs by next year before scaling production into the tens of millions of pairs. The initiative, along with other milestones achieved to date, earned Carbon a recurrence on this prestigious list as it rises among the ranks of the smartest companies.
This is Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal’s first year on the list; unsurprising, as it has only emerged this year with a detailed announcement of its offerings, introducing its two metal 3D printing systems in April before taking RAPID by storm in May. The MIT Technology Review does not provide a valuation for Desktop Metal, but says of its inclusion:
“With nearly $100 million from VC firms, GE, Alphabet, and others, this startup is trying to use 3-D printing, a technology that has focused on plastics, to reinvent how we make the metal parts essential to much of manufacturing. Making this kind of printing easy and cost-effective is a challenge, but Desktop Metal has laid out the pricing for its products, a promising indication of progress toward commercialization. Its first offering, including a printer and sintering furnace, will cost $120,000. Its full production system, to begin shipping in 2018, will cost $420,000. Renting is also an option.”
Desktop Metal hit the $97 million mark in funding early this year, having announced its initial investments back in 2015 with $14M raised from investors including Stratasys. At RAPID, Stratasys and Desktop metal announced the extension of their partnership, as Desktop Metal’s machines will be available via Stratasys’ reseller channels.
“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,” Stratasys’ Director of North American Sales Enablement, Roger Kelesoglu, told me at RAPID.
The promise of what Desktop Metal is bringing to the additive manufacturing market is certainly drawing attention. With a debut so high on the 50 Smartest Companies list, it’s clear that it isn’t only those in the sometimes-insular 3D printing industry who have taken notice. Several enterprises with a reputation for business excellence are among Desktop Metal’s partners, including advanced manufacturing solutions provider Jabil.
“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,” Jabil’s Vice President of Global Automation and 3D Printing, John Dulchinos, told me at RAPID of their work with the startup.
The team behind these promising advances in metal 3D printing technology is ever-growing lately, and has at its helm experienced leaders in 3D printing and engineering. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several members of the team and to see their 3D printers, furnaces, and software up close.
“The premise is to make metal fabrication more accessible, easy to operate, in an inexpensive machine and material all tied together with software,” Rick Chin, Co-Founder and VP, Software Development, told me as he demonstrated the turnkey, cloud-based software that may or may not ultimately be named Fabricator.
Metal 3D printing has been seeing significant advances lately, and Desktop Metal is working to ensure that its systems get out there as it aims to change the game. And the team behind the new systems are really standing behind their wares.
“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,” CEO and Co-Founder Ric Fulop told me.
“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.”
The proof, of course, will be in the pudding once their systems are delivered to customers beginning later this year with the Desktop Metal Studio System planned to ship starting in August with Pioneer Partners and the larger Desktop Metal Production System set for next year. From what has been demonstrated so far, though, the company has earned a place as a noted smart company.
Discuss further in the MIT Technology Review forum at 3DPB.com.
[Photos: Sarah Goehrke]