Markforged Aims for Metal 3D Printing Mass Production with PX100 Strategy

RAPID

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In August 2022, Markforged completed its acquisition of Swedish metal additive manufacturing (AM) company, Digital Metal. As 3DPrint.com editor-in-chief, Michael Molitch-Hou, wrote at the time, “The move is significant for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the leverage it provides Markforged in the binder jetting market.”

The Markforged team at RAPID + TCT 2023 in Chicago (May 2-4) certainly had the energy of an organization ready to leverage a prized asset. Namely, the PX100: the company’s recently released metal binder jetting platform, powered by Digital Metal. The appearance of the PX100 at this year’s show — the machine’s public debut in North America — was particularly symbolic, as was explained by Digital Metal’s CEO, Christian Lönne, during one of Markforged’s on-site press briefings.

Digital Metal CEO, Christian Lönne

“It’s a great day for me to be here today, because I was here at RAPID exactly one year ago, and I showed a shell of this machine — but the machine was empty. And, today, we’re here under the Markforged umbrella…and it’s a real machine,” said Lönne. “[Digital Metal] has done serial production for ten years using metal binder jetting technology, and that makes us quite unique… making batches of twenty or thirty or forty thousand parts for years. This is real series production.”

As with any ambitious young original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the AM space, Markforged has had to evolve especially quickly over the past few years, and its work seems to be paying dividends. The company has been on a particular tear lately, especially in high-value sectors like defense and automotive. This is not an accident. It is all part and parcel of the same strategy of which the PX100 could quickly become the centerpiece.

The PX100, image courtesy of Markforged

Ross Adams, Markforged’s business development manager, explained to me how important the increased capacity for metal AM series production is in order for OEMs to attract the all-important contract manufacturer market. “We have a lot of contract manufacturing customers that take orders in from all different areas,” Adams said. “For them, it’s okay to do like ten parts in a build. If [the machines] are already on and they have extra space in there, it can be more effective for them because they’re aggregating a lot of demand from different industries and different customer profiles.” This is where series production could truly start to have a big impact on the emergence of economies of scale in the AM sector: “The higher throughput you have, the more capacity you have, the better unit economics it equates to. If you can be running your machines everyday and keep everything on maximized uptime, you’re going to be a very profitable business.”

Moreover, that same consideration is critical not just in terms of allowing suppliers accustomed to lower-volume production to increase capacity. From the opposite angle, it is also an increasingly valuable tool for operations that rely on conventional mass production methods, but which are also now branching out, more and more, into smaller runs revolving around product personalization.

For instance, from Adams’ perspective, “Automotive is starting to shift in the way that they bring products to market. It’s much more about personalized customer experiences where you make the customer feel like they had a say in the car that they selected. So, all the different belts and buttons and knobs, being able to put your initials on them or pick your design, or any different type of logo. We’re just starting to get into this right now. [Our customer, Azoth, has] a [binder jet] part in a Cadillac [model] that’s been fully adapted for this process. And that proved a really good point to their engineering team, that binder jet is a process that you can rely on.”

Ross Adams, Markforged’s business development manager

Regarding Markforged’s aforementioned popularity with the defense sector, I think the most intriguing example of that so far this year was the installation of the X7 carbon fiber platform aboard the USS New Hampshire, one of the Virginia-class submarines in the US Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) fleet. Of course, no one’s putting a PX100 on a submarine any time soon.

On the other hand, Adams pointed out that it’s common for customers to move up to higher-cost, higher-complexity machines once they’ve gained a familiarity with the platforms, like the X7, that are most often used for rapid prototyping. Considering how urgently the US military (especially the US Navy) views the need for a national buildup of the most powerful classes of metal AM platforms, Markforged’s inroads into the defense industrial base could realistically lead to an accelerated growth trajectory in the very near future.

“[It’s] an evolution,” said Adams. “It usually starts with prototyping — ‘Ok, these parts are actually pretty good, let’s make some tools because that fits in the sweet spot.’ And usually what sparks next is a spare part, [for a specific] circumstance: ‘We need a part, and we have the tool to make it.’ And then once you print a part, that’s your in with a customer, right? You’re putting it into an environment, and it’s like, wait a minute! We can do this. It worked, and it’s actually not a big deal. And that’s what sparks the conversations usually internally of, okay, well where could this fit elsewhere?”

This is perhaps most significant insofar as the learning curve isn’t so steep that it would prevent the same people who have been trained on the less complex platforms to use the industrial-grade machines. In fact, according to Adams, “Most of our customers use interns to operate the machines.”

In a nutshell, that’s exactly the sort of thing that makes the release of the PX100 so exciting. It’s not just a state-of-the-art product that Markforged was able to acquire: it’s a genuine part of the company’s growing ecosystem, and one that could drive that ecosystem’s growth to far greater heights.

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