Additive manufacturing (AM) can only take you so far, which means there will be plenty of room for other digital production technologies alongside it as automation progresses. Among these complementary technologies is sheet metal forming. There are only a few players in the space, including Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM) and Machina Labs, the latter of which is taking on 3D printing veterans to aid the Los Angeles, California startup as it grows its operations. Specifically, Machina has hired former Carbon employee Alex Huckstepp as Vice President of Sales and former Relativity Space employee Alexander Kwan as Vice President of Operations.
3D Printing Veterans Join Machina
Machina emerged from stealth mode in November 2021, announcing the completion of a $16.3 million series A led by Innovation Endeavors with participation from Congruent Ventures and Embark Ventures. Boasting clients such as NASA and the U.S. Air Force, the startup has developed a technology that relies on industrial robotic arms to incrementally manipulate sheet metal into a final shape. Machina claims that its robotic sheet forming process can cut production times and costs significantly.
Both Huckstepp and Kwan have extensive histories in tech and 3D printing. Huckstepp led sales and business development for the transportation industry for Carbon, before taking sales and business development for ARRIS and Digital Alloys. After performing commercial sales at SpaceX, Kwan co-founded Relativity Space, where he established the startup’s business infrastructure. He then founded Tragen, an AI-driven finance tool backed by Y Combinator.
“Alexander Kwan brings a unique blend of operations, growth, startup culture along with expertise in aerospace, defense and more,” said Edward Mehr, CEO of Machina Labs. “Similarly, Alex Huckstepp combines exceptional business development expertise with technical acumen in additive and advanced manufacturing. If I were to draw up a list of ideal qualifications for both VP of Sales and Operations, I couldn’t have done better than these two individuals.”
Incremental Sheet Metal Forming
While digital sheet metal forming processes aren’t entirely new, they have not yet been widely commercialized. Academics like Northwestern’s Jian Cao and University of Chester’s Amar Behera have conducted significant research on what is typically referred to as incremental sheet forming for over a decade. Prof. Cao’s lab has collaborated with some of the world’s largest companies, including Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, and Boeing. In fact, Ford began showing off a technique it called Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology circa 2013.
It wasn’t until Desktop Metal acquired sheet metal forming startup Figur that we learned about the process. Unlike Machina Labs, Figur’s technology does not rely on robotic arms. Desktop also doesn’t broadcast the use of artificial intelligence and digital twins, which Machina applies to its own robotic sheet forming process. The exact advantages and disadvantages the two have over one another may not be immediately clear, but one seemingly obvious benefit to Machina’s technique is a theoretically infinite work envelope.
From the looks of it, Machina Labs is not selling a packaged product to the market, unlike Desktop. However, its past research would suggest that the startup can build early units for interested customers. Though Desktop may have beat Machina Labs to market with a commercial machine, it may not be the first to offer incremental sheet metal forming commercially. Machina, for instance, has been making parts for customers since 2020. Meco Machines, a Spanish firm, advertises its own version of the technology on its website. This process is not entirely dieless, as it still requires a die on one side of the work area. Then, we can also guess that many of the large corporate names we referred to above are implementing the technology internally.
3D Printing and Incremental Sheet Metal Forming
The hiring of Huckstepp and Kwan to Machina Labs suggests that, while incremental sheet metal forming isn’t an additive technology, its ability to produce parts digitally and on-demand places it in the realm of digital manufacturing. As supply chain issues and looming threats of pandemics drive further automation, AM, sheet metal forming, and other related processes will be part of digital toolbox that will make it possible to produce goods closer to the point of use and only when needed.
More immediately, not only are we going to hear more from Machina Labs, but we’ll also be hearing more about incremental sheet metal forming and related technologies. And we shouldn’t be surprised if familiar names and faces from the 3D printing industry don’t pop up when they do.
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