Langer Group capital fund AM Ventures has invested in MetShape, a company focused on vat polymerization-based indirect metal manufacturing technology. The startup works with Incus, a spinout of Austrian ceramics 3D printing firm Lithoz, and its Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) process, which uses an ultraviolet projector to cure layers of photopolymer resin mixed with metal particles. The resulting green part is then sintered to burn out the photopolymer binder before it is further heated to achieve a dense, metal component. It’s worth noting here that Lithoz is another AM Ventures portfolio company.
“With our holistic approach and know-how of the entire LMM process chain, we provide our customers the highest flexibility in developing and manufacturing their applications. With the further development of the company, we are increasing customer benefits to the extent that we are evolving from a LMM pioneer to a competent partner for all relevant AM technologies for the production of precise small and micro components,” said MetShape CEO Dr. Andreas Baum.
Itself a spinout of Pforzheim University, MetShape will use the funds for increased sales, marketing, staff, and equipment. The firm will continue to work with Pforzheim University and Incus to develop the technology further towards industrialization and higher yield.
HoloAM and Admatec offer similar technologies. Essentially digital light processing (DLP) or stereolithography (SLA) systems that 3D print a metal-photopolymer slurry that is then sintered. This allows for a multistep process that can make highly detailed, very accurate metal parts. A lot of conveyancing is required. Parts need to be taken through many steps. Some of the materials are dicey, in terms of safety. Production can take days, and parts are limited to very small sizes. But highly accurate parts can be made in their thousands or millions through the scalable addition of more systems to a factory. True serial production is possible with this technology and, indeed, HoloAM, Incus, Lithoz and MetShape are all targeting serial production applications.
“The key to mastering indirect AM processes is to control the oven-based sintering processes after the green part has been 3D printed. We are convinced that the team around Dr. Andreas Baum combines the necessary competences and has extensive know-how for the development and serial production of high-quality applications,” said Johann Oberhofer of AM Ventures.
Whereas the Digital Metal-led binder jet race is the one retail investors watch, there is another separate sintering metal technology that could be vying for a market space next to it. Compared to binder jet, vat polymerization components are smaller, but more accurate. The part cost would tend to be higher than binder jet, as well. But, throughput could be similar, albeit with more smaller machines.
There are a lot of high-value niches in medical, machine building, satellites, aerospace, jewelry, luxury goods, and even automotive. Numerous products, assemblies, and parts are getting more complex and a lot of mechanical products are being miniaturized. Many components are getting both smaller and more complex, as well. There are millions of short-run parts and also complex items that could be more cost-efficient when done with LMM.
At the same time, a lot of metal injection molding production runs could be replaced by using MetShape or its competitors. Items could also be improved through reductions in part count, or through superior internal textures or geometries in channels. Indeed, because the unhardened slurry is washed away, components with complex internal channels will be ideal for these technologies. Individual part size and part geometry will probably determine whether or not binder jet could be a better alternative. In some cases, DLP-plus-casting may also be more cost efficient.
AM Ventures is willing into existence the LMM market with a ring of relevant startups. The technology has a competitor in 3DMircoprint, which is a micro laser sintering technology in part funded by EOS, owned by the Langer family who are behind AM Ventures. We interviewed the CEO of 3D MIcro Print here and spoke to EOS CEO Marie Langer here.
Meanwhile, Langer investment ScanLAB provides the light engines for sintering or SLA machines. From a Langer perspective, “let there be light” is a good play, since anything light-based benefits their ecosystem, just as binder jet will rely on inkjet heads made by the likes of Xaar, HP, or Ricoh. The more light-based systems there are, the better it is for the mothership, as well.
We wouldn’t want the Epsons, Canons, and Nikons of this world to all pile in at full force. Better to grow a few seemingly unrelated businesses privately and create a new market out of the public eye that also buffers your initial companies. Anything that diminishes the business case for piezoelectric print heads and slows down HP will be good for team EOS. Indeed even healthy competition from HP would be good, but a free-for-all with many bigger businesses focusing on binder jet will be a problem. All in all, this seems like a useful investment on another potentially high-growth path towards millions of accurate parts.
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