Ford is investing in Desktop Metal, a 3-D printing start-up

Key Points
  • The automaker is leading a $65 million investment in Desktop Metal, a 3-D printing start-up.
  • Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington has joined the board of Desktop Metal.
  • ING predicts that by 2060, half of all manufactured goods will be printed.
Ford Motor Co. Fusion vehicles move down the production line at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock, Michigan.
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ford is leading a $65 million venture investment in Desktop Metal, a start-up that wants to give U.S. manufacturing a boost with its 3-D metal printers.

Desktop Metal systems can rapidly churn out finished parts of steel, aluminum or many other alloys. The company's machines come in two sizes, a smaller one for use in confined spaces like a design studio, and a larger one for use in factories.

Desktop Metal's 3-D printers bind metal and ceramic powders into a soft polymer; then they extrude layers of this mixture to make an object, which is moved into a sintering furnace. The polymer burns off inside the furnace, and the metal fuses together without losing its shape. Ceramic layers keep metal parts from fusing wherever a designer wants pieces to stay separate.

Printed objects are ready to use out of the furnace, no retooling required, according to Desktop Metal CEO Ric Fulop. They are comparable to cast metal parts in terms of structural integrity.

With his company's investment, Ford Motor Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington has joined Desktop Metal's board of directors, the companies announced Monday.

Fulop noted that while Ford isn't using Desktop Metal printers for vehicle production lines yet, the companies are working to make this a possibility.

In a report published in September, ING predicted that 50 percent of manufactured goods will be printed by 2060, erasing nearly one-quarter of global trade. Fulop said this is actually a positive for most manufacturers who stand to save time and money.

"Imagine you can print what you need, and only what you need, there on-site. You skip the tariffs and VAT, and customs. All you really have to do is send a digital file. That's very different from what we see today which is a lot of shipping of assemblies and parts," the CEO said.

Ford is not the only major manufacturer to invest in Desktop Metal's vision. The start-up is also backed by GE, TTI, and BMW (via its venture arm BMW i Ventures), along with a cadre of venture firms including NEA, Lux Capital and Alphabet's venture arm GV. The new round brings Desktop Metal's total funding to $277 million.