Industrializing 3D printing | MIT News

For companies that want to innovate their manufacturing processes and develop new products, the cutting edge of additive manufacture offers many possibilities. However, companies looking to tap into this market have traditionally needed to invest substantial sums in 3D printing machines and then learn how to integrate them into existing operations.

That’s a tough sell considering 3D printers can struggle with throughput and consistency for many industrial applications.

Now, VulcanForms, founded by Martin C. Feldmann MEng ’14 and MIT Professor John Hart, is offering digital manufacturing as a service for companies to build industrial products at scale. The company provides assistance to customers in product design and materials selection, and then builds a scalable manufacturing system in its production findry.

The heart of each workflow is a laser powder bed fusion (LPBF), metal 3D printing system that produces high performance parts from complex designs using a series of precisely choreographed laser beams. The printers are integrated with VulcanForms’ machining, robotics, and postprocessing equipment through a digital thread that also monitors parts as they’re produced.

“Even though LPBF technology is well-established for several applications including jet engine fuel nozzles and orthopedic implants, it’s barely scratching the surface of the opportunity,” Hart says. “VulcanForms sees a tremendous market opportunity to realize additive manufacturing at industrial scale and integrate it with a digital production system.”

VulcanForms currently produces parts for companies within the aerospace, defense, and medical industries. They turn designs into finished parts in just days. The founders say VulcanForms’ quality exceeds industry standards with materials like titanium as well as nickel-based and advanced steel alloys.

VulcanForms has completed its two first digital manufacturing facilities in Devens (Massachusetts) and Newburyport (Massachusetts). When it’s done, the Devens facility will house several dozen of the company’s additive manufacturing systems in addition to having postprocessing capabilities. According to the founders, these systems will make Devens the largest-throughput metal additive production facility in the globe. Newburyport’s facility is geared towards precision machining, automation, and assembly operations. VulcanForms combines these technologies and a digital thread. The founders claim that this infrastructure will revolutionize the way products can be designed, built, and delivered.

Industrially relevant 3D printing

Hart describes his entrance into additive manufacturing as serendipitous. In 2013, he was asked by a colleague to teach a class for MIT’s Masters of Engineering in Advanced Manufacturing and Design program.

“I don’t remember what led me to propose that the class focus on additive manufacturing, because I wasn’t yet doing research in the area,” Hart says. “The class was an experiment I used to explore a new interest and to tap into the passion and curiosity of the students.”

Feldmann, who was then in his first semester of MIT, was one of the students in that class. Students were required to measure the accuracy of 3D printed parts, improve their properties, and contribute to lectures on 3D printing.

“MIT throws so much at you — highly technical stuff but very applicable stuff,” Feldmann says. “At MIT, learning additive manufacturing wasn’t just calculating things. It was, ‘Here are [fused deposition modeling] printers, tell me what their capabilities are.’ And you use them and make things. That was a great experience. It prepares one for leading research efforts in industry and startups because you have to approach things like you know what you’re doing and have the confidence that you’ll figure it out.”

After earning his degree, Feldmann became a research specialist in Hart’s lab, where he studied nanomaterials and battery electrodes. Hart and Feldmann remained focused on industrially applicable additive manufacturing.

They eventually decided to make a new type LPBF-metal printer that could be used by many lasers at once, increasing throughput while still maintaining high quality. The pair received early guidance through MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service.

“Our goal was to rearchitect the LPBF process, and to do it in a way that enables a much higher and more consistent quality, which we saw to be the main impediment to industrialization of additive manufacturing.” Hart says.

Hart and Feldmann decided to make the leap and create VulcanForms. Hart supported Feldmann for almost two years as he worked on his first printer prototype. Today the company’s printers use hundreds of weld tracks in each layer through which lasers move in a synchronized dance. Lasers together can produce parts with a greater resolution and scale than other printers, according to the founders.

VulcanForms’ production foundry also includes CNC machining and post processing equipment, and the founders say the company’s software stack is a key differentiator.

“From the start, we saw 3D printing as a cornerstone of digital manufacturing, where the software and hardware work hand-in-hand to encode and execute production instructions,” Hart says. “We’ve built the software that allows each part to receive the same temperature locally in each voxel in each layer. It also allows us to move quickly to the end product while maintaining that consistency in production.”

The founders’ primary focus is on the capabilities that these capabilities can unlock for customers.

“What really gets me excited is how we’re able to take a customer part and turn it into reality in a production setting — not in a coat hanger or desk ornament setting,” Feldmann says. “Everyone in additive is just super excited about what a 3D printer can do and not how this works in a production value stream. That’s why we have an entire production value stream in house. It’s why our motto isn’t ‘VulcanForms: 100 kilowatts laser power in a printer.’ It’s ‘VulcanForms: accelerating innovation.’”

Helping 3D printing realize its potential

VulcanForms was contacted by a supercomputer manufacturer last year to design a cooling component for its processors. This titanium part was made of dozens of tiny tunnels and could only have been manufactured using additive manufacturing. As The New York Times VulcanForms reported that they returned with a part two more days later.

VulcanForms also produces medical implants, industrial tooling, tire molds, as well as components for the aviation and defense contractors.

Feldmann sees innovation enabled by additive manufacturing as driving technological progress across a variety of industries.

“I don’t think there are going to be orthopedic implants that aren’t LPBF-printed in the future,” Feldmann says.

This technological progress will result in even more uses.

“The only thing I’m 100 percent sure of is the highest-value applications for additive manufacturing have not yet been found,” Feldmann says.

The company sees digital production technology’s transformation in manufacturing as an opportunity for America to increase its economic prosperity and improve its innovation ecosystem.

“VulcanForms believes that one of the greatest opportunities in the United States is rebuilding its industrial ecosystem around digital production systems,” Hart says. “Digital-first production technologies, including additive manufacturing and automated precision machining, enable more innovative, resource efficient, and resilient supply chains. Innovation in manufacturing is the backbone of the American economy.”

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