With Boston-area based Formlabs closing the latest funding round and achieving a valuation of $1 billion, it now appears clear that the city that is most closely associated with the American Revolution is rapidly becoming the center of another revolution: the additive manufacturing revolution. There are now several leading companies based in the area, with two of them, Desktop Metal and Formlabs, already considered to be “unicorns” (i.e. worth more than $1 billion). Boston 3D printing is leading the charge of startups that are driving the evolution of the AM industry.
There are other “hearts” of the 3D printing industry worldwide. The Detroit area in the US is home to dozens of companies providing AM and rapid prototyping to automotive companies and parts supplies – as well as 3D printing manufacturers like EnvisionTEC. The Silicon Valley area in California also hosts several relevant 3D printing startups. In Israel, the Rehovot area near Tel Aviv is home to Stratasys, XJet, HP, Massivit and Nano Dimension – along with adapters, materials manufacturers, and universities. Singapore wants to become a global hub for 3D printing and so do several areas of China.
The Boston area, however, is different and in many ways seems ideally poised to become one of – if not the most relevant 3D printing hub. The area is already home to some of the most important robotic development and commercial robotic projects – including Boston Dynamics and iRobot (not too far, in Bedford). They are also very large adopters of AM technology. More importantly, however, the Boston area is home to MIT and Harvard, two of the Universities where some of the most advanced AM development projects have begun and still continue today
Learning to print
It should come as no great surprise that many 3D printing companies are based around Boston since many of their founders come from MIT or Harvard. Mostly MIT, actually, since the university’s labs have been directly responsible for the birth of some of 3D printing’s greatest projects. This leadership is only increased through the introduction of more courses that focus specifically on AM. MIT’s Mediated Matter Lab, led by archistar Neri Oxman is behind several innovative ideas that have pushed the boundaries of 3D printing’s most advanced technologies like multicolor/multi-material printing and glass extrusion.
The entire FabLab community – of which 3D printing is a key element although not the only one – originated at MIT thanks to the work by Neil Gerhsenfeld and his Center for Bits and Atoms. Other MIT projects have made intensive use of 3D printing for robotics development, with the MIT CSAIL center working on everything from design software to self-assembling structures and new materials. Harvard’s most high profile 3D printing related initiatives are very much focused on bioprinting and biocompatible applications thanks to the work of the Jennifer Lewis Lab at the Wyss Institute for Bioengineering. In a few cases, projects from the MIT and Harvard evolved into commercial spinoffs. MIT was more successful here, with most of Formlabs’ founders among its graduates, while the Voxel8 electronics 3D printing project by Harvard students has so far failed to evolve into a marketable product.
Boston 3D printing unicorns
Both Harvard and MIT students, though, can and do find work in many of the nearby 3D printing companies. The most successful so far is probably Burlington-based Desktop Metal. The company has reported several hundred systems under reservation and started shipping the Studio System to customers in the USA. It has attracted several hundred million dollars in investments raising its market valuation to over $1 billion. These investments came from much larger and very high profile 3D printing adopters such as Google, GE, BMW. Even the current 3D printing market leader Stratasys. The first system to arrive on the market from Desktop Metal is based on bound metal powders (metal powder held together by wax and a polymer binder) and is used for prototyping. Its upcoming Production System – which the entire AM world has its eyes on – is based on binder jetting technology and promises affordable and fast metal AM parts.
Desktop Metal is without a doubt an exciting company with some amazing ideas that could very much define the future of additive manufacturing for mass production and mass customization. On the other hand, Formlabs has already sold more stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printers than any other company in the world. The company was founded by MIT graduates (and run by a Harvard graduate). Since its systems only cost a fraction of high-end SLA systems, this does not translate into huge revenues in a still relatively small global 3D printing market. However, its unit numbers are truly impressive and it shows great potential for the future. Headquartered in Somerville, Formlabs has grown enormously since it was founded less than 10 years ago. It now has HQ’s in Europe and North America, with resellers in all major global markets, from Australia to Asia and South America.
Next up is Markforged, which is based in Cambridge. Although not (yet) considered a unicorn, the company was created around what was – and still is today – the only commercially available 3D printer capable of producing parts using continuous fibers (carbon, glass or Kevlar) in a thermoplastic matrix (nylon). It is based on Markforged’s patented Continuous Filament Fabrication technology which produces parts that are an order of magnitude stiffer and stronger than typical 3D printed objects. Since that first – extremely successful – 3D printer, Markforged closes more high profile financing rounds and has expanded its offer to industrial grade composite 3D printers and recently added a new bound metal system (similar to Desktop Metal’s) called the Metal X.
Rize is another Boston 3D printing area based company pushing the boundaries of additive manufacturing. With headquarters in Woburn, Rize introduced a hybrid extrusion and inkjet 3D printing technology which it refers to as Augmented Polymer Deposition (APD). Its Rize One system sustainably produces parts that have very high isotropic strength, are twice as strong as ABSplus and even stronger than polycarbonate and carbon fiber-reinforced parts in the Z-axis. This results in near zero-post-processing; minimizes time-consuming support removal and produces usable parts.
Finally, the latest additive manufacturing hardware company to rise up in the Boston area is Digital Alloys, which was founded in 2017, also in Burlington like Desktop Metal. Like its bigger brother it is focusing on taking metal prototyping to the desktop and, just like Desktop Metal, it is already attracting investors’ attention. Recently the company closed a $12.9 million investment round with some very high profile investors. The company developed an additive technology it refers to as Joule Printing which is more affordable and easier to use than most currently available metal AM processes. It works with any metal in wire form and is a radically simple, high-speed process for melting wire into useful shapes. Joule heating is the most efficient way to convert electrical energy into heat. Because the wire melts from within, there is no wait for the heat to move to where it’s needed. Melting occurs instantly, exactly at the desired location. This means it can print at 5‑10kg/hour at very low power (<1 kWh per kg). Joule Printing also provides precise closed-loop control of melting at the voxel level. Since the wire is held in a precision motion system, we know exactly where the melt is deposited. Unlike a direct energy deposition system, there is no dripping or splashing.
Also delving into the world of composite additive manufacturing, 3D Fortify is a startup based in Boston that was founded by Randall Erb and Joshua Martin at Northeastern University to optimize the microstructure of composite materials and to make optimized composites easy to fabricate. Through their research, they invented a magnetic 3D printing process which they refer to as Fluxprint. This process that creates optimized composites by combining magnetic and digital light processing (DLP) 3D printing to produce composite parts with ideal mechanical properties. As a part is additively manufactured, fibers are magnetically aligned voxel by voxel to optimize the microstructure. High-performance components are created significantly faster and at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional manufacturing.
The complete map of Boston 3D printing hardware companies alsos include EnvisionTEC’s exclusive partner Viridis3D, which is based in Woburn. The company introduced a very practical approach to 3D printing large format industrial sand molds for foundries, using a robotic arm.
It doesn’t end here: Conformis, a leading provider of customized partial and total metal knee replacements that implements 3D printing technologies, based its operations in neaby Bedford. The company implemented metal 3D printing technologies for increased customization options and recently oversaw the first 3D Total Hip Replacement Surgeries performed at JFK Medical Center in Florida using its newest products.
There will be more in-depth coverage in the future, but nearby Connecticut is now also becoming an extended 3D printing hub, especially since the Black & Decker TechStars accelerator for 3D printing startup was established. Very interesting startups working on new materials, such as Kwambio (ceramic 3D printing) and Micron3DP (glass and metal 3D printing) are now basing a lot of the research and business development here. In addition, Oxford Performance Materials (OPM), one of the most advanced companies for AM material and process research is also based in Hartford (CT), just a short drive south-west from Boston. Driving north an even shorter distance takes you to another historic and unique company in the world of AM: inkjet wax 3D printing pioneer Solidscape is based in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
It should come as no surprise that SmarTech Publishing, 3dpbm’s exclusive partner for AM industry data and market reports, chose Boston for its upcoming Analyst Day event (where the author of this article will also be speaking as Senior Analyst, on recently published reports covering Automotive AM and various materials).
New England’s software side
New England is not just about hardware. It is also about software and some of the top CAD/CAE companies have made it their home with a US or global headquarter. The upcoming Develop3D Live USA is taking place in Boston. The conference will host some of the biggest AM-centric software companies from the surrounding area.
The biggest and most relevant one is without a doubt Dassault Systemes. The French company established its 3DS Boston Campus in Waltham. The 27-acre campus is heralded as a showcase for sustainable innovation, the creation of lifelike experiences using 3D, and has been LEED-certified, demonstrating the company’s commitment to conserving national resources. Dassault needs no introduction when it comes to CAD and CAE software, however, it should also be said that its activities in the world of additive manufacturing have increased significantly in recent years, especially through the 3DEXPERIENCE platform.
Cambridge-based Onshape is among the primary challengers to Dassault’s (and Autodesk’s) dominance in the CAD software universe. Onshape software has been developed to provide state-of-the-art parametric 3D Modeling CAD, through true top-down design with configurations, standard content libraries, multi-part modeling and in-context editing. Onshape was among the first platforms to allow engineers and designers to work on the same model across different computers and mobile devices. All of Onshape founders have impressive backgrounds with relevant C-level positions at Dassault Systemes’ SolidWorks and/or at local universities such as MIT and Boston University. They also conduct ongoing collaborations with other Boston area 3D printing companies. After launching officially in 2015, Onshape made the Forbes Cloud 100 list.
This trip through the most fascinating and interesting Boston 3D printing companies ends with one of the most innovative and creative teams in the entire AM industry. Founded by MIT graduates Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg in 2007, Somerville-based Nervous System is a generative design studio that works at the intersection of science, art, and technology. Drawing inspiration from natural phenomena, the studios create computer simulations to generate designs and use digital fabrication to realize products. Nervous System’s designs have been featured in a wide range of publications. Their work is a part of the permanent collection of museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. If 3D printing is your thing (and it is, if you read this far), it’s definitely worth taking a trip to Boston.
*This article was updated on August 30th to reflect the fact that Desktop Metal has several Studio Systems already on pre-order and has begun shipping to customers in the US. It was also updated to reflect the fact that Desktop Metal technology is based on metal powder held together by wax and polymer binder instead of filament containing metallic powders as previously indicated.