It's less than two months before his company's initial product launch, and CEO Ric Fulop is excitedly showing off rows of stripped-down 3-D printers, several bulky microwave furnaces, and assorted small metal objects on a table for display. Behind a closed door, a team of industrial designers sit around a shared work desk, each facing a large screen. The wall behind them is papered with various possible looks for the startup's ambitious products: 3-D printers that can fabricate metal parts cheaply and quickly enough to make the technology practical for widespread use in product design and manufacturing. The company, Desktop Metal, has raised nearly $100 million from leading venture capital firms and the venture units of such companies as General Electric, BMW, and Alphabet. The founders include four prominent MIT professors, including the head of the school's department of materials science and Emanuel Sachs, who filed one of the original patents on 3-D printing in 1989.
When you think about 3-D printing, chances are you think of little plastic doodads created by desktop devices like those made by MakerBot. Computing and printer giant HP wants you to think about metal. Today the company announced the Metal Jet printer, an industrial-scale 3-D printer that builds items not of plastic but of steel. HP is trying to change that. In 2016, it launched its Jet Fusion plastic 3-D printer, designed for mass production rather than one-off printing.
A startup aimed at making metal 3D printing less complex and more accessible to design and manufacturing teams has garnered funding from BMW and other big-name companies as it prepares to emerge from stealth mode. Desktop Metal, based in Burlington, Mass., recently unveiled that it has raised $45 million in investments, with BMW Ventures, GV (formerly Google Ventures), and Lowe's Ventures contributing to the round. The new funding brings the total amount of equity raised by the company to $97 million since its founding in October 2015. Desktop Metal plans to use the funding to continue to develop its technology and scale production in anticipation of its official product launch later this year. Until then the company is remaining mum on the specifics of its technology, but not its overall mission, which is "to accelerate the adoption of metal 3D printing in manufacturing through the creation of innovative technology that produces complex parts at scale," said Ric Fulop, CEO and co-founder of Desktop Metal.
Jeff Immelt, former chief executive of General Electric, has joined the board of 3-D metal printing startup Desktop Metal, bringing the knowledge gained from pushing the industrial behemoth into additive manufacturing. Immelt, 62, who retired as chairman of GE last October after stepping aside as CEO the previous June, is currently a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, which first invested in Desktop Metal in 2015. The Burlington, Massachusetts-based company is an innovator in 3-D metal printers, and is currently pre-selling its production machine that can mass produce 3-D-printed metal objects and parts to manufacturers of all stripes. While 3-D printing has long been used for prototyping, its real promise is in its ability to mass produce large volumes more efficiently and at lower cost. "He's a huge believer in additive," says Desktop Metal CEO and cofounder Ric Fulop of Immelt.
Additive manufacturing has been hyped for years. But in 2017 much of its promise materialized: 3-D printing took a series of big steps out of the realm of niche prototyping and into the world of mass manufacturing. Here's a look at some of the most impressive things 3-D printers made this year, as well as what their creations portend for the future.