After Stratasys and Desktop Metal announce merger plans, 3D Systems proposes acquisition

It’s been a wild few weeks for some of the biggest names in 3D printing. Last week, Stratasys announced plans to merge with Desktop Metal, and now another industry bigwig is getting in on the action. 3D Systems marked the occasion by announcing its own unsolicited bid to purchase Stratasys.

“The combination of 3D Systems and Stratasys is simply the best outcome for the shareholders of both companies,” 3D Systems CEO Jeffrey Graves, said in a prepared statement. “We feel strongly that now is the time for all parties to recognize the overwhelming logic of our two businesses coming together. We are in a unique position to move with confidence and speed and we encourage the Stratasys Board of Directors to engage with our proposal and make this combination a reality for the benefit of the shareholders, employees and customers of both companies.”

If you haven’t been following the space, you’ve likely missed some of the earlier drama. The Desktop Metal bid came in the wake of shareholder Nano Dimension’s bid to take over Stratasys. Nano Dimension, a smaller additive manufacturing firm, formalized its plans in early March.

The company published an open letter detailing plans to increase its ownership of 14.5% (which already makes it the largest shareholder) to 85.5% at a price of $18 a share. It noted at the time:

We believe now is the time to combine our two companies and are pleased to present to you this non-binding indicative offer (the “Indicative Offer”), which outlines the principal terms and conditions under which NANO would propose to enter into a business combination with Stratasys (the “Proposed Transaction”). We are highly confident in the merits of the Proposed Transaction and we strongly believe the offer represents an attractive proposal for all stakeholders of the Company.

Stratasys’ board of directors unanimously rejected the bid before the month was out (by which time the price had risen to a $20.05 per share cash offer).

“Consistent with its fiduciary duties, and in consultation with its independent financial and legal advisors, the Stratasys Board of Directors carefully reviewed and evaluated the revised proposal,” Stratasys noted in a release. “Following its review, the Stratasys Board concluded that Nano’s proposal continues to substantially undervalue Stratasys in light of its standalone prospects and is not in the best interests of Stratasys and its shareholders.”

On May 25, the company announced a different move altogether. The $1.8 billion all-stock transaction would unite the large polymer-based industrial 3D printing firm with a pioneer in metal 3D printing.

“Today is an important day in Stratasys’ evolution,” said Dr. Yoav Zeif, CEO of Stratasys. “The combination with Desktop Metal will accelerate our growth trajectory by uniting two leaders to create a premier global provider of industrial additive manufacturing solutions. With attractive positions across complementary product offerings, including aerospace, automotive, consumer products, healthcare and dental, as well as one of the largest and most experienced R&D teams, industry-leading go-to-market infrastructure and a robust balance sheet, the combined company will be committed to delivering ongoing innovation while providing outstanding service to customers.”

Desktop Metal CEO Ric Fulop added, “We believe this is a landmark moment for the additive manufacturing industry. The combination of these two great companies marks a turning point in driving the next phase of additive manufacturing for mass production. We are excited to complement our portfolio of production metal, sand, ceramic and dental 3D printing solutions with Stratasys’ polymer offerings. Together, we will strive to build an even more resilient offering with a diversified customer base across industries and applications in order to drive long-term sustainable growth.

3D Systems, a massive player in its own right, low-balled Nano Dimension’s offer, at $7.50 in cash and 1.2507 in stock per share — a figure that comes in just shy of Nano’s $18 per share proposal. Stratasys told Reuters that it will “carefully review” the new proposal ahead of the planned Desktop Metal deal, which is set to close in Q4.

In addition to its massive presence in the industrial space, Stratasys has acquired its way into the consumer market. The company acquired MakerBot almost exactly a decade ago, before merging the brand with one-time arch competitor Ultimaker last May.

After Stratasys and Desktop Metal announce merger plans, 3D Systems proposes acquisition by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Relativity Space’s first launch fails to reach orbit, but proves its 3D-printing rocket tech works

Relativity Space achieved a massively important milestone at just before 11:30 PM ET on Wednesday, with the first ever flight of its 3D-printed rocket technology. Its Terran 1 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, successfully clearing the pad and launch structure, and achieving ‘Max Q’ – or the point during the launch sequence at which the vehicle is under the most pressure in terms of atmospheric resistance and stress – and also succeeded at cutting off its main engines and separating its first stage as intended.

The launch did not reach orbit, which is an extremely rare thing to happen on a new space launch platform’s first ever flight anyway. Relativity said during the launch that they encountered an anomaly with the second stage engines after main engine cut-off and stage separation that meant Terran 1 didn’t continue on its intended path to low-Earth orbit. This test launch did not include a payload or fairing, but instead carried a demonstration weight in the form of an early 3D-printed part from the company’s rocket development process.

Relativity Space’s first launch should definitely be counted as a success, with the company proving that its 3D-printed rocket body can withstand the extreme forces at play during that crucial ‘Max Q’ period. Basically, Max Q is the part of any launch when everyone in Mission Control holds their breath because it’s the point at which the odds are most stacked against the rocket surviving the various arrayed forces of physics.

Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone founded Relativity Space in 2015, and the company has been iterating and scaling its 3D-printing tech ever since, expanding to larger and larger manufacturing facilities. The company announced a 1-million square foot rocket factory in 2021, where it intended to build its larger-capacity Terran R rocket, the bigger sibling to the small payload Terran 1 that launched on Tuesday.

Relativity Space’s first launch fails to reach orbit, but proves its 3D-printing rocket tech works by Darrell Etherington originally published on TechCrunch

Austin-based ICON awarded $57.2 million NASA contract for lunar construction tech

ICON, a construction tech company that’s raised more than $400 million in funding, has landed a new contract from NASA to develop new systems to build on the moon and Mars.

The $57.2 million contract is a continuation of a previous Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) dual-use contract with the U.S. Air Force, which was partly funded by NASA. This award will support the development of what ICON is calling “Project Olympus,” an ambitious plan to build structures on the moon and Mars using in-situ resources.

“To change the space exploration paradigm from ‘there and back again’ to ‘there to stay,’ we’re going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the Moon and other planetary bodies,” ICON CEO Jason Ballard said in a statement. It’s clear that NASA agrees. Indeed, the agency has explicitly stated that one of the goals of its ambitious Artemis lunar program is to establish a long-term human presence on the moon. But as of yet, NASA has established no clear plans on where those astronauts will stay once they get there.

ICON, which is best-known for its 3D-printed homes, has been working on Project Olympus for some time. The company was awarded the initial SBIR grant from the U.S. Air Force in October 2020 for $14.55 million. This latest funding will keep the project alive for a handful more years at least: the contract runs through 2028.

Under the terms of this contract, ICON will be working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, under an agency venture called the “Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technologies” project. The company is planning on working with samples of lunar regolith and bringing its hardware and software into space to help it develop construction approaches that can best function in the cold, low-gravity atmosphere of the moon. Habitats aren’t the only thing on the company’s radar: it’s also eyeing up landing pads and other infrastructure to support sustained lunar exploration.

ICON has seen explosive growth since its founding in late 2017. The company landed a $207 million Series B last August, and closed another $185 million scarcely six months later. Sources told TechCrunch that the latest funding pushed ICON’s valuation close to $2 billion.

Austin-based ICON awarded $57.2 million NASA contract for lunar construction tech by Aria Alamalhodaei originally published on TechCrunch

Pantheon Design alleviates supply chain uncertainty with factory-grade 3D printing

In the midst of the pandemic, Pantheon Design, a maker of industrial 3D printers from Vancouver, BC, suddenly found itself getting orders from factories in the Midwest, the center of heavy industries. The reason? These manufacturers were having a hard time getting parts out of China as COVID-19 restrictions in the country squeezed global supply chains.

One of Pantheon Design’s e-mobility customers waited 18 months before its injection molds, which are used for producing parts, arrived from China. If your electric vehicle or home appliance order is taking longer to arrive, chances are port closures and lockdowns in the factory of the world are messing up your supplier’s production timeline.

For a long time, 3D printers were too expensive, slow, and short-lived to be economically viable for manufacturers, observes Bob Cao, co-founder and CEO of Pantheon Design, as he speaks to TechCrunch as one of the Disrupt Startup Battlefield 200 companies. Many of the 3D printing startups that secure big VC checks are run by smart people who have never been in a real factory, which is hot and smelly, says the entrepreneur. “So their machines break down all the time.”

“They make the product for prototyping, but they try to sell the idea for manufacturing,” he adds.

Cao’s founder story follows a familiar pattern seen among engineers: five years ago, he and his co-founders bought a bunch of 3D printers to build products for industrial customers, but the third-party devices weren’t meeting their expectations, so they set out to build their own.

Parts created by Pantheon’s 3d printer.

The result is the HS3 3D printer, which is a sleek-looking cube measuring 300mm on each side and weighing 46.7 kilograms, featuring black anodized aluminum, which has been treated to achieve a durable finish. The device is able to print carbon fiber parts that are as sturdy as metal and 5-10 times faster than other options on the market thanks to the startup’s patented methods, according to Cao. Moreover, it’s able to do it at a competitive cost even in comparison to Chinese suppliers.

The startup has sold 40 HS3 units — all assembled in-house in Vancouver with parts manufactured in Canada — since starting shipping the machine nine months ago. Each printer costs $15,000, but the bigger chunk of the company’s revenues comes from selling filaments. Also called the “ink” for 3D printers, filaments range from $50-150 a kilo, which brings a nice 90% profit margin, and most of the company’s customers spend about $500-800 a month on them.

Pantheon Design has raised $800,000 in funding from a mix of investors in Canada and the U.S., including the Boston-based accelerator Techstars. The company is also buoyed by revenues it generated from its previous business of printing products and prototypes for clients, and two of its proudest moments include printing entire concept motorcycles for Honda and all the sci-fi props in the Netflix film The Adam Project.

Pantheon Design alleviates supply chain uncertainty with factory-grade 3D printing by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

Sugar Lab buys back its tech to take 3D-printed foods mainstream

The 3D printing world can print in concrete, plastic, metal and pretty much everything else that starts off gooey and turns solid after a while. That includes a bunch of different types of foods, as Sugar Lab demonstrates. The company was originally acquired by 3D Systems in 2013, but co-founders Kyle von Hasseln and Meagan Bozeman decided to reverse course. Together, they wrestled the company loose again from its corporate overlords and they are having another go at growing it — and the Currant 3D printer the company sells — by themselves.

The genesis for the company was von Hasseln’s sister’s birthday party, and an absence of regular cooking tools. He hacked an old 3D printer to print cupcake decorations, and he’s been on a mission to create unusual cakes and sweets ever since. The company describes what it does as a “digital bakery,” and much of the tech involved is there to make the printers food-safe — not typically a huge consideration for most 3D printing applications.

“I recognized straight away that 3D printing with extruded food paste was too slow and rudimentary for wide adoption in the culinary world. That realization led me to immediately pivot to another 3D printing engine where thin layers of dehydrated food powder are bound layer after layer by water jetted from a printhead — which allows for precise, fast, full-color 3D printing,” says von Hasseln. “That invention, now called the CURRANT 3D Printer, solves the fundamental problem in the 3D-printed food space: mass adoption.”

Weird and wonderful custom-printed sugar cubes for the sweet, sweet win. Image Credits: Currant 3D

The new company acquired the 3D printing tech back in May, and now the race is on to raise more money and bring the products to market.

The company claims its printers are able to 3D-print complex foods in full color, with the ability to scale the production for large batches of tasty treats. The pritners can print a number of ingredients, including dehydrated fruits, vegetables, spices and plant proteins. The result is that the company has what appears to be the only NSF-certified commercial-scale 3D food printing solution.

“It may seem trivial, but our success is predicated on a simple design theory that every chef knows by heart — beautiful food is enticing, fun and engaging. And our 3D printer is best-in-class at creating beautiful food because we leverage all the promise of 3D design and 3D printing — color, precision and speed,” says von Hassln. “I am personally driven to make this new technology accessible to chefs everywhere. Chefs are artists at heart, and more than anyone they understand that well-designed food can create a completely new culinary experience.”

The company raised $5 million, most recently at a $16 million post-money valuation. The money is being used to take back full ownership of the tech and company, and spin up operations.

[gallery ids="2424909,2424913,2424908,2424910,2424912,2424915,2424916,2424917"]

“After Kyle developed his culinary 3D printer, it was quickly acquired by 3D Systems, where he and I teamed up to create and run the Culinary Technology division that built the CURRANT 3D Printer from scratch. We left 3D Systems in 2019, backed by our investor group, to found our company and quickly became the largest purchaser of the 3D printing technology. When an opportunity to acquire the tech arose this year, we went back to our investor network, which was hugely supportive, and raised capital to wholly acquire the CURRANT 3D Printer platform,” explains Meagan Bozeman, COO at Currant 3D and Sugar Lab. “We’re extremely proud and grateful that the technology is back in the hands of its original inventors and champions. This has put us in complete control of our future; we’re 3D printing food faster than ever, expanding into a much larger commercial kitchen where we will manage a 20+ printer fleet for this next rapid growth chapter, and enabling others to build their own 3D production kitchens through the purchase of our printers and supplies.”

The company says its ultimate goal is to take 3D-printed food from novelty to “indispensable ubiquity”. That doesn’t mean replacing how existing, well-loved foods are made, but to give chefs new powers to experiment and make new types of food.

“Adoption of digital design and 3D printing is critically important for a more sustainable and secure food future,” claims von Hasseln. “If you can download a new 3D design into a regional 3D printing kitchen, and 3D-print onsite with local labor and ingredients, you can cut deeply into the inefficiencies of legacy food production that rely on trucking ingredients all over the country — both to and from factories.”

Sugar Lab buys back its tech to take 3D-printed foods mainstream by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

Firehawk’s rocket engines and 3D-printed fuel hit testing milestones ahead of first launch

Although today’s rocket engines are advanced and powerful, they tend to rely on traditional — and naturally volatile — fuels like hydrazine or liquid oxygen and kerosene. Firehawk Aerospace has a safer and more stable new fuel, new engines, and millions in new funding to take it through the next round of tests to its first launch.

Firehawk appeared on the scene two years ago with a fresh take on hybrid engines — those that use a fuel with both solid and liquid qualities. The breakthrough made by CEO Will Edwards and chief scientist Ron Jones was to give that fuel a structure and 3D print it in a specially engineered matrix.

The structured, semisolid fuel is more stable and easier to transport than other fuels, and burns in a very predictable way. The company designed engines around this concept and tested them at smaller scales, but recently graduated to the kind of engine you might actually use if you were going to space.

“It’s a unique engine with its throttling ability, low cost of manufacture, and a parametric design, so we can design for a missile interception system or second stage booster,” said Edwards.

The company recently performed full engine burn tests at Stennis Space Center with NASA supervision, and they’re ready to fly — the last step before reaching a technology readiness level that would permit the company to step up its revenue.

Firehawk CEO Will Edwards (left) and chief scientist Ron Jones hold 3D-printed fuel tubes Image Credits: Firehawk Aerospace

In addition to better safety, printing the fuel grains differently makes it possible to create different thrust characteristics. And the whole thing can be safely slowed, stopped and started again multiple times — not something you see often in a launch vehicle rocket engine. Normally once you fire those up, they blast at 100% until they run out of fuel, meaning you only get one shot at it and your options for force vectors are limited — more like a drag racer than a normal car.

“Our engine can replace solid rocket motors with something significantly lower cost, on par with fuel performance, but you can control its burn — that’s something the industry finds incredibly compelling,” Edwards noted.

A Firehawk engine being tested at Stennis Image Credits: Firehawk Aerospace

Not in the sense of first-stage launch vehicle engines, for which that high-thrust, full-throttle fire is desirable, but for systems where a little more complexity would be welcomed: second-stage thrust (e.g., boosting payloads to a certain orbit once they’re out of the atmosphere) and missile interception systems, for which precision is paramount.

Edwards also suggested in-space propulsion like satellite maneuvering as a potential application, since due to the volatility of fuels, more low-impulse methods like ion engines are often used. Firehawk’s fuel is “inert by nature,” making it a lot less of a liability in, for example, a multipayload launch. Would you want your satellite stored next to a barrel of kerosene?

The new Series B funding round will enable more tests, more R&D, and the production of more engines to meet demand — though predictably with a company working with the likes of Raytheon, NDAs prevent the nature of that demand to be described with any specificity. They’ve raised $15.5 million so far but are expecting to close at $17 million shortly.

The list of funders is a bit long, but for the record: Star Castle VC led the round, with participation from Raytheon, Draper & Associates, Goff Capital, Cathexis Ventures, Plains VC, Victorum Capital, Stellar VC, Capital Factory, Echo Investments, and Hemisphere Ventures.

Although the engines currently being tested are nearly ready for use by customers, Edwards stressed that this is just the start. New applications are potentially just a few keystrokes away:

“We can create really unique fuel grain geometries, and by changing the design we can improve its performance. It’s just a matter of rewriting some code and uploading that to our 3D printers,” he said, adding that the new funding has let them buy and customize their own printers, CNC machines, and test setups for deployment in a new Addison, Texas, location. “We’ll be able to move through our next test campaign much more quickly.”

Here’s the happy team at the new HQ:

Image Credits: Firehawk Aerospace

More tests should be coming next month, which should clear the way for a launch of some kind in the near (but still unspecified) future.

Firehawk’s rocket engines and 3D-printed fuel hit testing milestones ahead of first launch by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Kav spools up a 3D printing factory for bike helmets in Silicon Valley

I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been led to believe that heads and brains are important parts of human infrastructure, and protecting them makes a lot of sense. The other thing worth keeping in mind is that all heads are slightly differently shaped, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more, better-fitting helmets coming to market. That’s where customized, 3D-printed helmets come in. For just over $300, the 3D printing noggin-defenders at Kav will send you a fit kit to take some measurements, print your helmet and two-three weeks later the delivery van turns up at your door. The company just opened a factory in Redwood City in Silcon Valley to start fulfilling orders from across the U.S.

“Consumers like the thought of domestically produced goods, but the premium associated with paying a living wage, operating in a carbon-responsible way and U.S. regulations act as a deterrent. The recent supply chain snarls have companies scrambling to secure raw materials and inventory at great expense, undoing decades of just-in-time manufacturing and sparking global inflation. They are forced to make difficult decisions compromising on speed, quality and costs,” said Whitman Kwok, founder and CEO of Kav, in an interview with TechCrunch. “Kav set out to build the world’s most advanced helmets, and in the process create a beacon of how manufacturing can excel, not despite labor, environmental and regulatory considerations, but because of them.”

Kav built a solar-powered 3D printing fab, which is able to print “thousands of helmets per month.” The company launched its first, $390 helmet back in April, but has since optimized the production workflows and has been able to lower the price per custom helmet to $320 per unit.

Fresh helmets, get yer helmets, fresh out of the ov… I mean, 3D-printer. Image Credit: Kav.

Before opening the current factory, Kwok told me the company was creating proof-of-concept helmets in “a glorified garage,” but the new lab is stocked with a stack of new tech and custom-made materials to print helmets.

“We’re on our fifth generation of printers,” said Kwok, which are heavily modified Prusa printers. “We’ve retrofitted all new hardware, rewrote all the software and built environmental controls on top of the entire cluster. We use a proprietary carbon fiber nylon composite formulated for impact attenuation and stability across temperatures ranging from -15C to 70C. It took 27 iterations, but there’s nothing else like it on the market.”

Kav spools up a 3D printing factory for bike helmets in Silicon Valley by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

As 3D printing merger closes, MakerBot CEO steps up and Ultimaker CEO steps down

Following this week’s closing of the Ultimaker/MakerBot merger, the combined company is announcing a new name. The entity will be known as [drumroll please] UltiMaker. As far as merged names go, it’s not a particularly exciting one. The new company name is UltiMaker, with a camelcased “M” to acknowledge MakerBot’s place in all of this.

What is, perhaps, more intriguing is the resulting executive shakeup. Current MakerBot CEO Nadav Goshen will be tasked with running the new brand, while Ultimaker CEO Jürgen von Hollen will be stepping away entirely “after assisting with the integration and transition plans for the new company over the coming months.”

“With the completion of the merger behind us, we can now focus on integrating the two businesses further and begin creating significant value for customers with leading 3D printing solutions,” the now-former CEO said in a release tied to the announcement. “During the next few months, I look forward to helping the teams get started and take maximum advantage of the newly afforded opportunities.”

As previously discussed, UltiMaker will maintain offices in both New York and the Netherlands, where the companies are headquartered.

Image Credits: UltiMaker

Both brands rode an initial desktop 3D printing bubble to success. Much of that hype has since worn off, and while industrial additive manufacturing maintains heat, these sorts of consumer devices have largely maintained a relatively niche role among hobbyists, prototypers and the educational sector.

When the deal was announced in May, Goshen told me:

The market, instead of stepping up into a more professional product line, went in the other direction. That created confusion among customers and more fragmentation. It’s a very complex technology. We need to invest. By combining the two companies, we now have the scale to invest and step out of the low-end solutions that are out there, to provide something that is engineering grade, easy to use, but still affordable. This is where the market stopped developing. The need to scale and further invest comes from the market and the need to fuel that innovation.

Following today’s news, the executive notes, “By combining our teams and technical expertise, we can work towards developing and delivering a comprehensive portfolio of products to support professional, educational, and light-industrial applications.”

As 3D printing merger closes, MakerBot CEO steps up and Ultimaker CEO steps down by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Mantle is 3D-printing manufacturing tooling

Mantle is launching a new series of $350,000 machines that can 3D-print the mold inserts that are used to produce injection-mold plastics. It’s hard to overstate how important this will be — I caught up with the company’s founders to find out how and why this tech is going to put a serious dent in the speed-to-market for manufacturing.

Okay, let’s go deeply geeky for a moment, and take a look at one of the most interesting uses of 3D printing I’ve seen in a long while. To understand why this matters so much, you need to understand how manufacturing works; specifically, how injection molding works. Most plastic parts can be made by the hundreds of thousands, by injecting liquid plastic goo into a mold. This mold typically has water-cooling lines running through it, to bring down the temperature of the liquid, molten plastic quickly, so it solidifies. The mold opens, the plastic part is ejected, and you can go to the next cycle. Almost every small (and many large) plastic parts are made this way. The tools are usually made of extra hard “tool steel,” which needs to be extremely precise. The surface of this steel mold can be anything — smooth, textured, you name it — and anything that’s part of the mold cavity becomes part of the final plastic part. As you might imagine, creating these steel molds is extremely precise work, and it takes a long time (years) to become a tool maker. To become a truly excellent tool maker is a lifelong profession, at least as much art and experience as it is technology.

<span style="font-size: 1rem; letter-spacing: -0.1px;">We’re seeing about a 70% reduction in the time to create these type of inserts and a 50% reduction in cost.</span> Ted Sorom, CEO at Mantle

While injection-molded parts can be made by the tens of thousands in a negligible amount of time, the tools can take weeks, especially if your company is small enough that it doesn’t have dedicated toolmaking resources. Six to eight weeks is common, and during the global pandemic, I’ve heard quotes of up to 12 weeks. A three-month delay in manufacturing that can’t be worked around easily is, obviously, a nightmare.

You might ask yourself, “why don’t we just 3D-print these molds?” and the answer to that is complicated — the tools need to be extremely hard-wearing, precise, temperature-tolerant and the surface finish needs to be nigh-on perfect. There aren’t a lot of 3D printing technologies that tick all the boxes, but that’s exactly the space where Mantle is, erm, injecting itself.

“I was introduced to my co-founder who had started printing with silver conductive traces that were used to connect the backside of solar panels. From there, he started to try to print a physical object, not just the traces. When he started printing silver, I wasn’t interested in starting a jewelry company,” recalls Ted Sorom, CEO and co-founder at Mantle, excitedly sharing the genesis of the company. “About a month and a half later, he was printing low-carbon steel on very inexpensive equipment before anybody else had gotten close to doing that. I joined him to bring the technology to market back in 2015. We’ve been developing the technology for the last six years.”

The tech is interesting because they found a technology that connected with Sorom’s background in manufacturing. When the duo started printing in low-carbon steel, Sorom immediately realized that there would be a very important niche that could use this tech. Instead of using the 3D printer to print low-volume parts (as, say, automotive manufacturers tend to do) or prototype parts (as every manufacturer does these days), they would instead be using the 3D printers to create parts crucial to the mass-manufacturing process, whether that’s stamping dies or injection molding tools. Both need extremely precise surface finishes and longevity.

“Surface finish, tolerances and material durability requirements in the tooling space are extreme,” Sorom volunteers. “These tools are used millions of cycles to mass produce products. We’ve created a technology that the portion of the injection mold where the plastic hits the metal right. The insert that creates the final part. The materials we print today is similar to P20 tool steel — we call it P2x. The other is H13 steel.”

Now, if you’re not enough of a tool steel nerd to know what P20 and H13 are, these are two of the commonly used steel types for injection molding uses, which can be used hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times before they need to be replaced.

The technique for printing is really interesting as well. The company has developed an FDM-style process — much like the filament printers you may have seen from MakerBot etc. — that uses a paste-like material that uses a liquid carrier that carries metal powders. After printing a layer, the company goes through a drying process that gets rid of the liquid component, resulting in a densely packed body of metal powders. After 10 layers or so, the process then uses a high-speed cutting tool (much like a CNC mill) to cut away tiny amounts of the material, which creates the surface finish and tolerances needed. That happens every 10 layers or so.

“At the end of the process, we have a body of metal powders densely packed held together by a tiny bit of glue or called a binder. We put it into a furnace and density it into a solid metal part,” explains Sorom. “It’s a two-step process. We print and shape in one machine and then sinter the part in a furnace.”

The cool thing about doing it this way is that CNC machines are extremely good at getting high-precision parts, but the challenge is that the tool steel is so hard, that the CNC machine’s cutting tools cut it only very slowly. By shaping the parts before sintering, the company gets the best of both worlds: they do the precision shaping on a much softer material, and then “bake” the part to harden it afterward.

“That is how we are able to get a product that has the surface finish and detail to go directly from the 3D printer into an application,” Sorom says. “That’s where we save a ton of time and cost for our customers. We’re seeing about a 70% reduction in the time to create these type of inserts and a 50% reduction in cost.”

Mantle announced a year ago that they were going to build tool-making machines, and today it announces that the company is starting to sell its hardware, which includes a printer and a furnace solution.

The machine solutions will cost around $350,000, which might sound expensive, but for the metal fabrication shops that make tooling, this is roughly in line with the EDM and high-end CNC machines they already use. They also operate in industries where a $350,000 machine to cut production time by 70% is an absolute bargain, so it’ll be interesting to see the adoption of these machines out in the world. Delivery of the first production systems is planned for the first half of 2023.

The company produced a video showing how its tech works:

BMF raises an enormous round to 3D-print tiny things

Boston Micro Fabrication — BMF among friends — is one of the biggest names in 3D-printing teeny-tiny things. The company just announced a Series C to continue its journey, as it announces it doubled its install base over the past year.

“Our business has scaled strongly, and we plan to use the new capital to further expand our capability,” stated John Kawola, CEO of BMF. “Our global reach has been appreciated and valued by our customers, and our systems are now being used all over the world to both prototype parts that previously could not be 3D-printed and drive end-use part production where conventional methods are difficult.”

The kind of 3D-printing processes BMF offers its customers are tailored to the small, high-precision markets. BMF’s machines use what the company calls Projection Micro Stereolithography (PµSL) tech, which uses light and photosensitive resins to create ultra-high-resolution parts — capable of details down to 2μm, and layer thicknesses of 5-20 μm.

It’s hard to describe in words how small parts like that are — hence the photo of the match and the tiny little gears at the top of this article. It boggles the mind, and it unlocks some pretty incredible use cases for 3D printing.

These tiny little guys are 3D printed glaucoma stents; a medical device that can be inserted into the eye to help treat glaucoma. You may recognize the base they are placed on: a penny. The company’s case study of these tiny little devices is fascinating. Image Credits: BMF (opens in a new window)

The company has seen some pretty extraordinary growth over the past year; it claims it doubled its install base, meaning that there are more than 200 customer locations around the world. BMF lists electronics, medical device, optical manufacturers, and advanced research labs as its biggest customer groups. It also expanded global operations, with facilities in Boston, Mass, USA, and Shenzhen, China, with additional locations in Chongqing, China, and Tokyo.

BMF today announced it closed a Series C round, totaling $43 million. The company was not willing to share terms or valuation of the round, which was led by Shenzhen Capital Group Co., Ltd. It will use the funding to advance product development, sales and marketing, and customer support as it continues to expand and serve its global customer base.

The company put together a video that shows what they do, which includes some pretty nifty 3D printer porn if that’s your thing like it is mine: