Micro Metal 3D Printing – the New Investment Magnet

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Just one of the promising startups profiled in my recent “Emerging AM Technologies Analysis: 10 Companies to Watch” report for SmarTech Analysis, Fabric8Labs announced a massive $50 million series B funding round to develop its Electrochemical Additive Manufacturing (ECAM) technology. Raising that much for a manufacturing hardware startup is not an everyday occurrence, and this round stood out even further for a few reasons: the current economic climate, in which many companies are struggling to raise significant funds; that Fabric8Labs is still pre-revenues; and the high profile of the investors, including NEA (which led the round), Intel Capital, Lam Capital, TDK Ventures, SE Ventures, and Mark Cuban. (Note: Fabric8Labs also previously raised $19.3m in 2021 and $4m in 2018).

For those unfamiliar with ECAM, the process utilizes a water-based feedstock made from low-cost metal salts, to produce complex metal parts at the atomic level, enabling superior feature resolution and enhanced material properties. Fabric8Labs is reporting a 50-micron print resolution and is strategically targeting high-volume production of small parts (generally up to 100-150mm in size). The startup is currently focused on thermal and radio frequency (RF) applications, with liquid cooling in data centers as an early targeted use-case and sees future expansion potential for medical and other domains.

Fabric8Labs is part of a wider industry trend of micro-metal 3D printing companies, including California-based Holo (Autodesk spin-off, backed by Lightspeed and Lam Research, among others), North-Carolina based Trio Labs (backed by VentureSouth, among others), and Germany-based MetShape (backed by AM Ventures), which offers parts via its technology partnership with Incus (the only firm with a commercially available printer in this list).

Copper inductor coils made with Holo’s 3D printing technology.

While most of these companies are at pre-revenue stages, the amounts raised by them and the caliber of investors signals the strong potential of the micro-metal printing domain.

What is also interesting is that all of these companies have a parts-focused strategy (compared to a printer-selling strategy). This is an interesting approach, which they believe will enable them to capture more financial value when compared to “selling the box.”

Given most of these firms’ printers are not yet commercially available (and for most, they might never be commercially available, as the business model is focusing on part production), it is hard to perform a true comparison between the businesses. In addition, as the companies are targeting a parts business model, factors such as service levels (e.g. part delivery time) will be key customer considerations, which we can’t estimate at this time.

(As a side note, the fact that customers will buy components instead of printers means that factors such as ease of use, safety, and even failed prints are “hidden” from the customer and the load is carried by the parts provider, making them essentially irrelevant to the customers).

A 3D printed medical device component made by MetShape. Image courtesy of MetShape.

Therefore, the below comparison is caveated by reliance on relatively limited information at this stage.

  • Technology: Trio Labs wins on feature size, offering a five-micron resolution compared to the 50+ microns offered by the other companies. As noted, with factors such throughput, ease of use, safety and others being essentially irrelevant for parts customers, we believe the superior part resolution from Trio Labs can provide it with a competitive edge, especially in its targeted space of high-value medical devices.
  • Funding & investors: Fabric8Labs’ is by far the most well-funded with a very impressive investor list that set Fabric8Labs’ up for success. While the other firms also boast impressive investors and advisors, Fabric8Labs certainly has the leg up here. The word of caution in this case is that the high valuation of Fabric8Labs can create counter-productive investor pressure, as we’ve seen with other “hyped” AM startups in the past.
  • Strategy: As noted, all companies are targeting a parts business model. Fabric8Labs and Holo are initially targeting copper and are therefore focusing on thermal and RF applications. Trio Labs is laser-focused on medical devices (and in fact, sees itself as a medical device company “powered by” its proprietary AM technology), and MetShape is focused on medical and jewelry. We believe the key to success here will be focusing on application development. (It should be noted that Incus is selling the printers as well, putting a dent in MetShape’s ability to capture the ‘full value’ of the technology; and that customer pressures down the road might necessitate the other companies to also offer their hardware for sale).

To summarize, the micro-metal space is heating up with several interesting players about to launch their solutions. We believe the market is substantial enough to have more than one winner. We will continue to keep a close eye on this space and see how these players fair out. To learn more about some of these firms and more, take a look at the “Emerging AM Technologies Analysis: 10 Companies to Watch” report from SmarTech Analysis.

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