After many years in stealth mode, California-based VELO3D emerged in August 2018 with the release of its end-to-end Sapphire metal 3D printer. The industry took notice. The system, based on the company’s Intelligent Fusion technology, gained significant attention for its promise of support-free 3D printing and production capabilities.
Since then, VELO3D has kept up momentum, showcasing applications for its metal AM system in various industries and working with influential players in the AM and aerospace industries, such as Stratasys Direct and Boom Supersonic.
We recently had an in depth conversation with VELO3D’s Chief Customer Officer Richard Nieset about the company’s unique 3D printing technology as well as how it aims to disrupt the metal AM and broader manufacturing markets with its capabilities. If there is one key thing to take away from the conversation, it is that VELO3D is delivering on its promises and is confident in its ability to transform and unlock AM applications, especially in the aerospace and industrial sectors.
3dpbm: Can tell us a bit about your background and role at VELO3D?
Richard Nieset: I have a technical background in physics and computer science which led me to an early career in control systems management. I co-founded a company called Agile Software that specialized in product data and design management. Interestingly, I worked with a lot of the same companies over the course of my career at Agile that I work with now at VELO3D.
In my role as Chief Customer Officer, my responsibilities include managing all the main customer touch point functions within the company, starting with marketing and moving into sales and customer success. We want to make sure that we have a terrific customer experience from beginning all the way through—not to the end, because it’s more of a cycle. We deal with OEMs and contract manufacturers and it’s an ongoing relationship.
3dpbm: What was the inspiration behind VELO3D and its technology?
RN: The company is about five years old now, and the early days were really about R&D and technology development. Initially, the founding concept was built around the notion that there were two significant problems with additive metal printing in serial manufacturing: lead times were too long and the consistency and dependability just wasn’t there.
VELO3D founder Benny Buller was on a mission to find a solution to these problems. The original concept for the company was actually for software that might work in conjunction with existing systems, but as the team got further into development, they realized there was only so far that it was possible to push the existing powder bed fusion printers. That’s the point where the team diverged from looking at software into producing our own end-to-end system.
The goal was to improve reliability and shorten the lead time of parts in a production environment.
3dpbm: When the company shifted to hardware, were supports identified as a major limitation for metal AM?
RN: Yes, when you look at the lead time issues, there are several different elements that work together to make it a problem. One is that it wasn’t possible to build parts without having to redesign them—there typically is an iterative redesign process that one has to go through in order to make parts that are suitable for AM. This extra design effort is the front-end lead time problem.
Second, the consistency and repeatability of the process itself is a problem. And third is the support orientation problem, which is difficult for two reasons: supports have to be designed in the up-front—you have to figure out where to put them in order to keep the parts from warping—and then, once your part is built, they have to be removed, which leads to potentially long and precarious post-processing.
When you add all three of those things together, you come up with something that is conceptually ok, but in practice is just not as fast and repeatable as necessary. One of the design objectives with VELO3D was to figure out how to eliminate the support structures as much as physically possible to reduce and ultimately eliminate these problems.
3dpbm: Could you explain what sets VELO3D’s Sapphire system apart technically?
RN: I’m going to break this down into three key areas: software, closed loop control and the recoater process.
The first challenge is that you’re working off of CAD models and it would be great to simply click on print and get parts off the printer, but the technology is obviously not there yet. There are many steps that have to happen between designing and printing, but seamless printing from CAD without redesign is ultimately what we’re striving for with our Flow software.
Today, the software integrates with native CAD models in a way that eliminates a lot of the up-front manipulations necessary to go into the print process. We have a large software team and they’re dedicated to trying to make the process of moving from part design to print as seamless as possible.
Throughout the entire additive process, starting from pre-print to finished part, our focus is on quality management, so we can know what happened and how to better handle the variability of what’s going on in the build chamber. That is related to the closed loop control concept.
Our engineers have developed sensing and feedback loops that make it possible to continuously monitor and automatically correct variables as you go through the build. This enables the system to work in a serial production environment—repeatable, from machine to machine. The idea is that you can put a part in a VELO3D Sapphire machine and the same part into another, and at the end of the print, you’ll have two of the exact same part.
The third ingredient of our secret sauce is the very heavily patented re-coater process, which we call a non-contact re-coater. It doesn’t use the traditional blade scraping mechanism that our competitors use, it uses touchless capabilities and the benefits are multifold. We’re very good at producing high aspect ratios, thin-walled parts, tall builds, etc.
In short, the re-coating blade is not in contact with the powder bed. Once the powder is applied, a kind of scraper blade and vacuum process comes across the top of the powder to make sure that the powder is absolutely level. Again, none of this in contact with the actual bed itself or with the part, so it gives you a level of freedom that translates to support free printing.
VELO3D has about 35 patents to date that have been granted, so the team is working hard trying to come up with technology that really enables high volume production for metal additive.
3dpbm: What industries are the most interested in VELO3D’s technology?
RN: One of the industries that stepped up right away has been the aerospace industry and specifically OEMs in the rocket propulsion field. The parts that are involved in these OEM applications are rocket chambers, exhaust chambers, nozzles and turbo pump impellers.
These companies are under very aggressive production schedules: they have to produce systems very quickly to repetitively launch payloads. They approached us because we could provide the quality and challenging geometries they needed and we could do it on a production schedule that met their aggressive requirements.
Another customer area is the industrial sector. There are a lot of applications where our capabilities are needed, like oil and gas, for instance, but also power generation.
Heat exchangers are a third interesting application area for VELO3D. For example, we’re working in conjunction with nTopology, which makes a plugin for CAD that enables the auto generation of complex lattices. When we inject those lattice structures into designs and build the parts, we come up with heat exchangers that have an internal core with incredible gas and air flow characteristics and dynamic heat exchange properties. These can be used in a variety of areas, from aviation to industrial. There are even some Formula One race teams looking into it.
3dpbm: Is there a big cost benefit at this time for using the technology?
RN: We’re seeing that there is. You’ve got prep time, print time and post-processing time, all of which add up to your end-to-end lead time. We think that because we can shrink the time-to-market of a part in each one of these areas that you can get a cost benefit there.
Support-free printing is a major benefit in reducing or eliminating the post-processing work. It dramatically speeds up the post-processing, so part cost is definitely reduced. In general, any parts with complexity that you might think about using AM for, we probably have a price advantage over the competition and over traditional means.
Another big cost driver is the fact that our customers are able to print a good print on the first try, and that has to do with Flow and the predictable print outcomes.
3dpbm: Can you give us any indication about what the next steps for VELO3D will be?
RN: The next step is to continue talking to OEMs to get them interested in building parts on our Sapphire systems so that we can sell the printers to contract manufacturers to fulfil that demand. Our future is focused on producing part demand for the print platform that we have today.
In addition to the technology itself, our go-to-market strategy is something that is unique within the industry. We understand that it is OEMs that are driving the business: they are the ones that are going to come up with the specifications for parts we need to build. And, at the end of the day, they also need contract manufacturers in a supply chain that can produce those parts in volume.
What we’re doing is working with the OEMs to find and develop the part demand, and then match that part demand to contract manufacturers. They, in turn, purchase the Sapphire systems needed to produce the parts.
We currently have Stratasys Direct as a manufacturing partner, and there is another contract manufacturer that we’ll be announcing shortly. My primary sales focus is on OEMs and developing parts and then the secondary focus is in taking those master parts contracts to the CMs. It’s a bit of a different go-to-market strategy: we don’t just sell to anyone; we want to make sure that every system that we put in the field is going to be used in production.
3dpbm: Any closing remarks?
RN: I would wrap up by saying that we aim to be the reality company when it comes to metal AM in a production environment. I’m proud to have an opportunity to serve customers from that end-to-end perspective so they know that when they approach VELO3D and they want to make parts, we’re going to give them straight talk.
We won’t make promises we can’t keep. We take everyone through a vetting process and give them a part to hold in their hands and tell them how it was produced. If they decide they want to move into volume production, they can depend on VELO3D Sapphire system availability to manage production and quality down the line.