What 3DPrint.com has referred to as the Laser Wars is continuing apace. However, while we are now used to the same laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) manufacturers simply upping the ante in terms of how many lasers a machine has, there is also a new series of startups challenging the status quo. The latest is Freeform Future Corp., a Los Angeles-based company founded by former members of SpaceX looking to take metal 3D printing to the next level.
Freeform’s Metal 3D Printer
In a Bloomberg exclusive covering the company’s exit from stealth, the firm details its origin story, some specifics about its technology, and its business strategy. In an effort to overcome throughput issues associated with LPBF, Freeform has developed a machine in which “18 lasers fire nonstop while [two parallel] conveyors move plates in and out of the beams.” Clearer pictures can be found in the Bloomberg piece, but in this article, you can see screenshots taken from the Freeform website.
While the sheer number of layers obviously increases the rate of production, the conveyor belt technique—as seen in processes developed by TNO, dp polar, and Tritone—allows build platforms to exit to other areas where fresh powder can be deposited and part edges can be polished while laser fusion continues in the build chamber. This allows the system to 3D print some five kilograms of metal powder in an hour, compared to traditional equipment that fuses about 100 grams per hour.
Meanwhile, cameras capture machine data at a rate of over 70,000 frames a second. Combined with scanners, sensors, and artificial intelligence software, this camera system is used to perform in-process quality control, allowing the printer to respond to the build and make adjustments where necessary.
Freeform’s Metal 3D Printing Origins
Freeform CEO Erik Palitsch came from SpaceX, where he spent 10 years using LPBF to 3D print rocket engines. In 2018, he tapped another SpaceX veteran, Thomas Ronacher, to launch this new startup, before taking on former members of Velo3D, Carbon, Tesla, and Apple. In a press release announcing Freeform’s existence, Palitsch said:
“While at SpaceX, I leveraged metal 3D printing to accelerate the development of numerous rocket engines. We were innovating in ways that were not possible before and accelerating our trajectory toward the future; however, we ultimately realized that it was impossible to print at production scale using even the best current technologies. We founded Freeform to solve this problem and to make this transformative technology available to all industries, giving anyone the ability to rapidly take an idea and produce it at scale. We’re bringing the best talent on the planet together to disrupt the manufacturing industry, and with our recent fundraise, we’re excited to scale production capacity to make printing at scale available to all industries.”
Over the course of five years in stealth, Freeform has raised $45 million from Two Sigma Ventures, Founders Fund, Threshold, 8VC, and Valor Equity Partners. While Founders Fund has previously backed food Eat Just, Arevo, and Sols, 8VC has thrown money behind additive construction startup ICON. Scott Nolan, investor at Founders Fund, said of his investment:
“Freeform has revolutionized the additive approach. Others have tried addressing one component or problem at a time, like thermal stress, but no one else has rethought the entire architecture and approach. Freeform has created more flexibility for how parts are printed, and their cost-effective model has opened up a whole new class of 3D-printable parts.”
Freeform’s Metal 3D Printing Strategy
Like VulcanForms and Seurat, startups also challenging the LPBF status quo, Freeform is launching its technology as a service to start. Its goal is to expand from the smaller machine it has now to a series of machines that could fill a 100,000-square-foot building and operate in a “fully autonomous” manner.
So far, Freeform has found customers across the energy, automotive, aerospace, and industrial sectors. New space firm Ursa Major is working with the company to 3D print rocket engine parts. Nick Doucette, Chief Operations Officer at Ursa Major, told Bloomberg, “The usual way we do this is a nightmare of testing samples and tweaking things. Freeform just prints something and gives it to me.”
Another customer is Embark Trucks, which develops autonomous technology for the trucking industry. Brandon Connors, Head of Programs and Manufacturing at Embark, said in the Freeform press release:
“As Embark brings autonomous trucking technology to market, we need the ability to seamlessly scale up from prototype to production. That means sourcing commercial-grade metal parts on short timelines, consistently and at a practical cost. Freeform’s printing service enables us to meet our manufacturing needs, improves supply chain reliability, and gives us the ability to change designs without impacting delivery time, so that we can accelerate the deployment of our technology.”
Freeform’s unveil is an exciting one—as exciting as those of VulcanForms and Seurat. Their presence in the 3D printing industry will surely drive legacy LPBF machine manufacturers like EOS, Concept Laser-GE, 3D Systems, and SLM-Nikon to be more aggressive in their approaches. They may even be appetizing acquisition targets themselves. The competition is particularly fierce as Chinese companies like EPlus, Farsoon, and Bright Laser unveil their own many-laser machines and increasingly enter the European and North American markets.
Interestingly, Freeform seems to combine the best of all worlds when it comes to the new generation of PBF technologies. Perhaps learning from Velo3D, of which SpaceX is the largest customer, Freeform’s founders seem to have accomplished tight control over the printing process and incorporated in-process quality control. Meanwhile, the startup is able to deploy many lasers, though not quite the million points of light boasted by Seurat.
As promising as Freeform and all of these companies are, however, how they make it in the market will be another story. What is obvious is that throughput, repeatability, and automation are all increasing in the LPBF space. How the legacy manufacturers respond will be interesting to see.
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