Ric Fulop, the 43-year-old cofounder and chief executive of Desktop Metal, is eager to show off the skunkworks for the company’s giant 3-D metal printers, which can produce stainless steel, aluminum and other metal alloy parts at assembly-line speeds and in large quantities. It’s the first time he’s taken an outsider to the facility in Nashua, New Hampshire, just across the state line from Desktop Metal’s headquarters in Burlington, Massachusetts. The four machines—which are 16 feet long, 6 feet tall and weigh about as much as an SUV—are in various states of production. They’ll be able to 3-D print 100 times faster than existing high-end 3-D printing systems used for aerospace, and at one-twentieth the cost, without the tooling required for traditional manufacturing processes. “It’s the first metal printing press,” says Fulop, an exuberant, heavyset man with a slight accent from his native Venezuela.
Desktop Metal’s original machine, which began shipping this year at a cost of $120,000, is a desktop model (thus the company’s name) designed to 3-D print metal prototypes or low-volume runs. This one—which uses a variety of metal powders and has a price tag of more than $1 million for an initial installation—is for mass production. Desktop Metal’s pitch to America’s largest manufacturers and most innovative industrial startups is that its machines can print fast enough and at a low enough cost to replace casting and CNC machining for numerous metal parts. The term “3-D printing” covers a number of different technologies by which machines create three-dimensional objects from digital files; in the most common process, the machine lays down many thin layers of material in rapid succession, building up the end product based on the digital design. “The way we make things is about to fundamentally change,” Fulop says. “With 3-D printing you don’t need tooling anymore, so it is enabling a new industrial revolution.”
“The way we make things is about to fundamentally change,” says Desktop Metal’s Ric Fulop.
Only a few years ago, proponents envisioned a world in which hobbyists would buy little 3-D printers for their homes. That never really panned out. The $3,000 machines spit out cheap-looking, clunky plastic objects that no one wanted or needed. Instead, it’s now clear that the real value of 3-D printing isn’t in making keychains and other doodads, but in the $12.8 trillion global manufacturing industry. Putting 3-D printers on the assembly line will usher in a new era in which smaller factories, located closer to consumers and tied together by software, can print parts on demand with no minimum order size. Better yet, it’s possible to design parts that are lighter, cheaper and more efficient than what could have been fabricated in the past.
That’s a huge deal, and not just in metal, which is Desktop Metal’s forte, but in the larger space of plastics and composites, which helps explain why startups have been rushing into digital manufacturing. In the new world envisioned by proponents of 3-D printing, cars and planes could become lighter and more fuel-efficient, replacement knees could be designed with spongelike metal surfaces that bones can grow into, and outdated tractor parts could be printed on demand at a local outpost when they fail. Manufacturers will benefit from being able to design and produce new items faster and more efficiently, while consumers will gain by being able to order up custom items that previously would have been prohibitively expensive. Wohlers Associates, a 3-D printing industry analyst, forecasts that sales of industrial 3-D printers could reach $11.7 billion next year and $18.2 billion by 2021.
Desktop Metal sold 357 printers of both types last year, according to Wohlers—an exceptionally fast rollout for a company that was founded in 2015—to buyers that include Ford, Caterpillar and Google’s advanced technology and projects group. The backlog of orders for its 3-D printers currently tops $120 million. Forbes estimates that revenue, minimal last year as the company launched its products, could reach $50 million this year as it ships its printers. Desktop Metal has been signing up new customers faster than it can produce machines, and its mass-production printer won’t begin shipping until 2019, so it won’t work through that backlog this year. Next year, if all goes well, should be its breakout year in which revenue could top $100 million.
The company has raised $277 million in venture funding from investors that include Ford, BMW, New Enterprise Associates, GE Ventures, GV and Kleiner Perkins—at a valuation of more than $1 billion. Fulop, who drives a Tesla that looks like a tornado hit it with stuff from his three kids everywhere, owns a small minority stake. NEA’s Dayna Grayson, an early investor who has known Fulop a decade, believes Desktop Metal’s speed is its advantage. “There are companies that spend years in labs before they go to market,” she says. “Ric moves at the speed of light. He just says, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and off we go.”
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Fulop loved tinkering with technology. His father had many jobs, including working in a textile firm and a travel agency. The country’s economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s had forced many Venezuelans to become entrepreneurial to get by. “Dad was an entrepreneur. He tried many things,” Fulop says. By the time he was a teenager, Fulop was already thinking bigger. “I was doing 3-D when I was 18 years old. I was just interested in it,” he recalls. At age 16, he used his bar mitzvah money to start a company that imported computer hardware and software and sold it to Venezuelan retailers. At 18, he cofounded his second company, which made 3-D modeling software.
He came to America in 1995 to study at Babson College, but left before graduating to focus on another startup that he’d founded in his dorm room. That company, called Arepa at first and later Into Networks, refined technology developed with a group of MIT coders to enable users of broadband services to download software from the internet. Into Networks sold its technology to another firm, which was subsequently acquired by Microsoft, where the technology became the foundation of the software giant’s App-V app virtualization product.
In 2001, as a 26-year-old college dropout, Fulop knocked on the door of Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor of materials science and engineering who had developed a new technology for fast-charging lithium-ion batteries. Fulop had read Chiang’s papers and saw the potential to commercialize the technology. Fulop charmed the older professor, and Chiang agreed to start a battery company, A123 Systems, with him. “You just have to be persuasive,” says Fulop, who finished an M.B.A. at MIT as a Sloan Fellow in 2006. “I was a young kid, but it’s not like I hadn’t done anything. You know professors—they’re trying to commercialize their research. It’s easier than it looks. They’re not looking to leave the university.”
For a time, A123 was a highflier. It raised a bundle, including $250 million in federal grant money as part of the stimulus package, and when it went public in 2009, in a $380 million IPO, the stock jumped 50% in the first day of trading, closing above $20 a share. But hopes soon soured for the money-losing company. There was too much supply, including cheaper batteries from Asia, and not enough demand as sales of electric cars gained traction more slowly than expected. Making matters worse, A123 relied heavily on one customer, the startup electric car company Fisker, and when Fisker failed to bring its Karma sedan to market on time, A123 had to lay off workers and shut down some production. “There was too much capacity. There were too many people building factories,” Fulop recalls.
In October 2012, with shares trading for just 25 cents a share, A123 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. By then, it was a political hot potato in a presidential election year because of the taxpayer funds it had received. (In January 2013, A123 emerged from bankruptcy under Chinese ownership.) Before the denouement, Fulop was gone: He had left A123 in 2010 to become a venture capitalist at North Bridge Venture Partners, a longtime backer of A123, where he invested in Dyn, a web application security company (acquired by Oracle for $600 million); Onshape, a CAD company; and Markforged, a carbon 3-D printing company (with whom Desktop Metal has been facing off in court over patents and trade secrets).
By 2013, Fulop was itching to get back to running a company, and he saw opportunity in metal 3-D printing. “Investing is very slow. It’s molasses. It’s not very operational, and I’m an operator,” says Fulop, who wears an Apple Watch and carries two cellphones that he checks regularly. “It’s kind of boring, honestly. This is more fun.”
He launched Desktop Metal in 2015 with six cofounders, including Chiang and other MIT professors. Ely Sachs, the elder statesman of 3-D printing who coined the phrase “3-dimensional printing” in his first patent and was the lead inventor of the binder-jet 3-D printing technology, joined the group as a cofounder. So, too, did Chris Schuh, an MIT professor of metallurgy whose research group has worked on developing new metal alloys at nanoscale. Sachs, 63, recalls how even years earlier he was interested in 3-D printing of metals, but it was hard then to get funding for projects in metal, and metal powders weren’t readily available. “In many ways, metal parts are the best application for 3-D printing,” he says, noting that by creating lighter, less expensive metal parts, 3-D printing could eventually allow some pieces now made with plastic to be created in longer-lasting metal. “It was exactly what I had been wanting to do years before.”
In October 2015, Desktop Metal raised its first venture funding, $14 million, to design a 3-D metal printer. Fulop and his team tested gears and other simple parts on the printers, then moved on to more complex ones. They tested a variety of metal powders and stress-tested the end products for strength. Fulop knew from the beginning that he wanted to launch a mass-production machine. “At the first meeting with Ely, we talked about doing production,” he says. With VC funding pouring in, they realized they could launch two machines in 2017, a smaller one for prototyping and the giant production machine.
The production machine is based on a technology that Desktop Metal calls single-pass jetting, a bi-directional printing process that uses more than 32,000 jets in conjunction with powder spreaders to jet millions of droplets per second. That creates high-resolution layers of metal that build up into a part with no tooling required. The result is that manufacturers can create metal parts in minutes instead of hours. It’s a faster, less-costly technology that’s more suited to mass production than the laser-based process used to 3-D print parts for aerospace. “This is the reason that Ford and others have supported us,” Fulop says. “In the time it takes the laser-based process to produce 12 propellers, Desktop Metal would produce over 560.”
Since Desktop Metal’s launch, Fulop says, its buyers have included the military, seven of the world’s top 10 car companies, and major players in industries ranging from medical devices to apparel. Ford, which is both an investor and a customer, has already set up the smaller, studio printer in its Dearborn, Michigan, research facility and is now testing the printing of auto parts. Jabil, a contract manufacturer based in St. Petersburg, Florida, that makes everything from casings for iPhones to medical devices in more than 100 factories in 29 countries, also signed on early and is making a big bet on 3-D printing. It expects to ultimately buy thousands of 3-D printers of all types, including as many as 100 from Desktop Metal. “Jabil doesn’t do things where we want to have three or four machines in a corner,” says John Dulchinos, Jabil’s vice president of digital manufacturing. “We’re about finding applications where you leverage scale and manufacturing capability.”
One early customer was Lumenium, a startup in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that is developing a new type of internal combustion engine that has a devilishly complex design with cooling passages that allow it to be both compact and powerful. “It is really a nightmare and takes weeks to create the passages,” says Bill Anderson, Lumenium’s cofounder and CEO. So when he saw Desktop Metal’s machines at the Rapid + TCT tradeshow in Pittsburgh in 2017, he was blown away. “We were pretty stunned by the booth,” he says. “We never thought those parts could be produced in quantity at low cost.” Working with Desktop Metal, Lumenium tested 3-D printing and cut both time and cost. A saddle carrier with the cooling passages that previously had taken a week to make at a cost of $980 could now be done in four days for just $148.
At his desk near a window in Desktop Metal’s open office, Fulop keeps dozens of metal doodads, pieces that have been 3-D printed for testing that he’s eager to show off. There’s a small steel prototype of a water impeller pump that would go into a BMW car; it cost $80 to make previously, and just over $5 with the 3-D printing technology. Another steel part full of cooling channels is for an Audi assembly. These new shapes—whether hollowed out or with a maze of lattices running through them or with foam-like surfaces—look cool, but they also can be 50% to 60% lighter than their old-school counterparts. That is a big cost savings in material, and a potentially larger savings in fuel costs for planes or cars.
For the automotive industry, 3-D printing has enormous potential, but there’s still a lot of R&D to be done before the machines are churning out parts in American factories. “The biggest question is, how do you make the parts large enough and fast enough at scale?” says Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, who joined Desktop Metal’s board of directors earlier this year.
The other big question for Fulop and Desktop Metal is competition. HP, which has been rolling out its own industrial-size 3-D printers for plastics, just launched its production-scale metal 3-D printers, for example, and 3-D printing startups abound. (For more on some of those startups, see the sidebar.) Which players win will depend on both technology and price. “Desktop Metal can’t relax,” says 3-D printing analyst Terry Wohlers. “It’s becoming a crowded market. There is always room for something that is faster and better and lower cost.”
For the future of manufacturing, and ultimately for consumers, that’s a great thing.
Reach Amy Feldman at email@example.com. Header image of Desktop Metal’s Ric Fulop (left) and Ely Sachs by Michael Prince for Forbes.