The Industrial Revolution gave us the factory, which is the symbol of our productivity as the human race. In these buildings, we house tools, processes, and labor that give us many of the products that we use to make our lives easier.
Factories came and vastly increased our productivity. Adam Smith put it best in his book when he mentioned how ten men employed in a small factory could produce between them tens of thousands of pins while had they worked alone.
The benefits of factories cannot be denied. However, they also come with certain limitations. For one, you cannot reprogram a factory. A factory is typically built to manufacture one thing or one set of things and nothing else. If you want it to make something else, then you have to get different machines and retool it. When you do that, you can expect to spend a lot in terms of initial capital outlay before your production line begins to make financial sense. Because of the intense capital expenditure, innovation doesn’t move along at a pace as rapid as we would hope.
Another limitation also happens to be a major benefit: specialization. Because of the extensive specialization involved in manufacturing, businesses need to have massive supply chains and storage facilities around the world to take care of their goods.
This isn’t going to go on forever. We are about to have a different kind of Industrial Revolution that will make things different. Humans are already going through this Industrial Revolution. We are now making things into shapes that would have been impossible before using methods that couldn’t have been imagined before. I’m talking about 3D printing; the marvel of 21st-century manufacturing.
While you may be more used to 3D printers that use plastic spools to make stuff, there are companies making 3D printers that can also produce metal parts. In order to understand the exact impact of such an innovation, it’s important to get a sense of how 3D printing technology has evolved over the years. Just a few years ago, 3D printers weren’t really all that, despite all the hype surrounding them. 3D printers made things that most consumers really weren’t interested in and most manufacturers wanted things that 3d printers really couldn’t make.
3D printers have for the longest time been mainly used by hobbyists, who would purchase them at a few thousand dollars and use them to print digital designs in plastic. The most common 3D printers would heat various polymers and eject them out of a nozzle to form the shape detailed in the computer blueprints. However, the plastic often looks cheap, unfinished, and rough. As a result, 3D printing is only good for prototyping and can’t really be used in this way to produce goods that are ready for the market.
There are some much more expensive and professional 3D printers out there, such as the ones used by GE to make high-value parts. Such printers often cost more than $1 million dollars and can be used to make things like the nozzles of expensive jet engines through the fusion of metal powders. The process, however, is pretty slow, pretty expensive, and sometimes pretty dangerous.
The problem, in this case, is that, while the entire manufacturing sector would love to be able to use 3D printing to its advantage, most of the things that are manufactured today, whether they are drills or phone cases, tend to have some metal parts or at least a combination of metal and other materials. A 3D printer that can work with metal would, therefore, be a boon to the industry.
Desktop Metal is a company looking to fill this gap and reap the more than trillion dollars that the market represents. The company’s CEO points out that, while 3D printing was considered expensive and slow in the first 2 decades of its existence, it is now being used for mass production of high volume goods. While there are lots of companies out there making 3D printers to print plastic and use additive manufacturing processes to produce high-value goods, Desktop Metal is the only company of its kind, that is focused on making 3D printers that manufacture metal parts.
Admittedly, it isn’t easy to print metals. You can’t extrude molten metal in the same way that you can extrude a polymer because your machine would have to be able to tolerate extremely high temperatures while doing so. So how do you go about solving the problem?
Desktop Metal uses a particular kind of technology known as binder-jet printing. It was first conceived by a man named Ely Sachs in 1989 and was one of the first ideas to be patented in the 3D printing space. With this technology, a binding polymer is combined with metal powders. The polymer then hardens and an oven is used to burn away the polymer while also fusing the metal together. This fusions process is known as sintering.
The first question that probably comes to your mind is why this technique is being applied now if it was first conceived in 1989. The reason is simply that materials were a lot more expensive at the time and techniques for 3D printing weren’t as mature then as they are now. Also, at the time, no one really saw the potential of the technique. There was a lot of skepticism because no one could explain why anyone would want to print metal parts in the first place.
Two types of machines will be sold by Desktop Metal. The first is the “Studio” version, which will be used for prototyping, and will cost $120,000. The other one is the “Production” version, which will be used for mass production and will cost $250,000.
There is already quite a lot of demand for Desktop Metal’s products, with companies like Google buying the Studio version for their prototyping needs.
With the conquest of the metal space, 3D printers will, for the first time, be able to work in mass productions in special kinds of “anything” factories where multiple things and parts, sometimes completely unrelated, can be built in the same place. Ultimately, the factory will see its own kind of revolution which will bring goods to market faster, make them cheaper, and make them a lot more efficient.