It seems like in this age of exploding smartphones, autonomous vehicles, and killer robots, we’ve come to ignore one of the hardest-hitting technologies of the 21st century – 3D printing. Now, I’ll be completely honest, I’ve also disregarded what I now see to be a revolution to the current manufacturing and design process, and I’m out to right my very evident wrongs. Traditionally, we’ve perceived 3D printing as an almost gimmicky, novel practice that thrives in highly funded and covert research labs. Throw in a tinge of realism and a collective effort by some incredibly innovative enterprises, and we now see affordable, effective 3D printers pervade the workspace of universities, edgy designers, and ambitious engineers.
The kicker, however, is that these groups work exclusively in ABS plastics, the cheap, banal, and ubiquitous 3D printing material. Feel free to think of such plastics as the engineering equivalent of black ink in your standard desktop printer. But, let’s face it – if you’re actively seeking to disrupt manufacturing and design as an underdog, you have to use metal. Carnegie is smiling in his grave; the efficacy and long-term success of the world’s modern enterprises are defined by their forward-thinking use of metal to create amazing products (hint: any technology, design, or industrial company). So, while NASA, Apple, and Boeing continue to trail blaze using laser-melted metal printing, the little guys can’t – until now. We now have a 3D metal printing process that’s faster, safer, and cheaper than its existing counterparts, and it’s going to flip traditional means on their heads. Maybe it’s finally time for a bunch of ambitious creators to start milling products in a garage and change the world – again.
The superstars behind this effort are Desktop Metal, a series D titan with egregious financial support that’s offering some pretty real hype. If they deliver, Desktop Metal will transmute metal printing from an extravagant, rigid platform into a reliable solution that’s 20 times cheaper and 100 times faster. We are currently at a vaguely defined periphery in the 3D printing space, mostly marked by our inability to make it a scalable process, and it looks like we just might have hit the tipping point. Moreover, Desktop Metal caters to two often dichotomous groups that rely on metal printing; they are offering a studio system built for rapid prototyping for engineering teams, and a production measure for large-scale manufacturing timelines.
The studio version is reliable with very few maintenance impedances. Just think of it as a normal printer that spits metal – I guess in that regard “normal” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean. Cartridges are shipped with over 200 possibly alloy combinations, and timing and temperature are handled automatically. Process your design, feed it to the printer, and watch in amazement. They’ve provided a human-centered solution to an unwieldy and frustrating process. Desktop Metal’s studio system accosts the industry with a multitude of materials and options all for a price tag of $120,000, which is nearly $900,000 cheaper than other alternatives.
The production measure is an entirely different beast, and perhaps an even more promising one at that. The large-scale printer employs metal powders that are bonded upon application, ones which are much less exacting than the requirements for laser printers, where materials can cost almost 20 times more. Resolution is as fine as a human hair, and products are built in a fully automated, highly tested, and incredibly safe environment. Juxtaposed with a price tag of $360,000 with competitor base rates of nearly $1.5 million, you can see the potential for Desktop Metal’s industry breakthrough.
I know, I know. When I seem stunned at a printer that shoots metal, you’d probably think my priorities are out of order, and truthfully maybe they are. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think many realize the impact that a cost-effective solution could have – imagine a manufacturing space where even the smallest engineering and development teams could machine products that match those built by enterprises with 80 years of production excellence. We are witnessing the birth of a market equalizer, one that promises to bring even the underdogs into competition with behemoths, and that is a damn cool guarantee. If I told you that Apple could receive legitimate competition from your favorite Kickstarter campaign, we’d see this work as very different, and much more impactful. But, we all have to start somewhere, and this is an incredible first step in what is an uphill battle.