Corporations are lining up to invest in a 3-D metal printing start-up

Key Points
  • Desktop Metal has raised $115 million in a new venture round led by NEA.
  • Alphabet (via GV), BMW, GE, Lowe's, and Techtronic Industries are all corporate backers.
  • Metal 3-D printing allows for rapid development and testing of hardware, and lower-cost manufacturing.

A start-up called Desktop Metal has developed 3-D printers that can produce metal objects safely, in smaller spaces and for a lower cost than traditional manufacturing, which requires expensive machinery, lots of floor space and risky physical labor.

The company just closed a $115 million round of venture funding to deliver its first batch of machines to customers within the U.S., founder and CEO Ric Fulop said Monday. The series D investment brings Desktop Metal's total capital raised to $212 million. The deal values the company at more than $1 billion, sources familiar with the deal confirmed.

Investors include venture firms such as NEA and Lux Capital betting on advanced technologies and corporations likely to use the start-up's printers in their own operations. Corporate backers include BMW, GE Ventures, GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Lowe's and Techtronic Industries, which owns Hoover, Dirt Devil, Ryobi and other power tool and appliance brands.

"This team developed a product that solves a very technologically complex problem in about 18 months," said Dayna Grayson, a tech investor with NEA. "We re-upped our investment seeing their ability to execute, and because we believe there's a very large, addressable market here."

Last year, the entire additive manufacturing industry produced $5.1 billion in revenue, with just about $1 billion attributed to metal 3-D printing, according to the Wohlers Report 2016. But additive manufacturing is expected to grow across the board, Grayson said, especially in aerospace and automotive.

Desktop Metal's machines work by binding metal and ceramic powders into a soft polymer. They extrude layers of this mixture to make an object, which is then placed into a furnace for what the company calls "microwave-enhanced sintering." The polymer burns off there, and the metal fuses together without losing its shape. Ceramic layers keep metal parts from fusing wherever a designer wanted to separate pieces.

The printed objects are ready to use out of the furnace, no retooling required, Fulop said. They are comparable to cast metal parts in terms of structural integrity, he said.

Desktop Metal is shipping its first Studio system printer to customers this fall. The system, which can be purchased for about $120,000 or leased for about $3,250 per month, is designed for engineers who want to rapidly develop and test hardware prototypes in their office or lab.

The Desktop Metal Production system will ship next year to businesses that mass produce metal parts and want to use 3-D printers on the factory floor. It will cost around $420,000.

Burlington, Massachusetts-based company, which employs about 150 people full time, has focused on the U.S. market so far.

"We have seen demand from all around the world," Fulop said. "But the U.S. is still where we see the most, and that is to be expected. This country is very much the leader in research, design and innovation for hardware, whether you're talking about autonomous vehicles or consumer electronics."

Given the new funding round, Desktop Metal will explore international expansion in 2018. But one of the CEO's goals is to give the U.S. manufacturing sector a boost.