Boston is the heart of America’s new 3D printing sector
From the American Revolution to the additive manufacturing revolution
As several Boston 3D printing companies reach valuations of over a billion dollars, 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 at least three of them, Desktop Metal, Formlabs and Markforged, already considered to be “unicorns” (i.e. worth more than $1 billion) and more possibly on the way. These Boston 3D printing companies are leading the charge of startups driving the evolution and the revolution of the AM industry.
Boston is not alone. There are other additive manufacturing industry hubs around the world. 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 such as Carbon and Nexa3D. Several companies emerged in North Carolina, around the HQ of 3D Systems, the company that “invented” 3D printing. Many AM companies are emerging around Houston, Texas, focusing on the energy segment. Outside the US, in Israel, the Rehovot area near Tel Aviv is home to Stratasys, XJet, HP, Massivit and Nano Dimension – along with adopters, materials manufacturers, and universities. The Italian “Motor Valley”, in the Emilia Romagna region is home to dozens of companies specializing in prototyping and luxury automotive parts suppliers. The Vicenza and Valenza regions of Italy also became big 3D printing hubs due to the heavy use of this technology in jewelry manufacturing. Barcelona is a major creative hub, with HP basing its 3D printing operations there. The region between Belgium and the Netherlands has seen many major 3D printing service providers emerge. Singapore is becoming a global hub for 3D printing, especially in the maritime segment. Several areas of China are also 3D printing hubs, starting with Shenzhen and Huangzhou.
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 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 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 not yet evolved into a fully marketable technology for the footwear industry (the company was sold to Kornit).
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 founded by Ric-Fulop completed a hugely successful IPO via a SPAC merger (one of the first companies to start this major trend on Wall Street). It has attracted several hundred million dollars in investments and used that funding to acquire both established companies (ExOne, EnvisionTEC, Aidro) and rising startups (Aerosint, Meta Additive, Forust) active in the AM industry. The initial investments in Desktop Metal had come from much larger and very high profile 3D printing adopters such as Google, GE, and BMW. Even the current 3D printing market leader Stratasys was among the first investors in Desktop Metal. Now Desktop Metal is itself a market leader, with yearly revenues of over 100 million and several 3D printers on the market, targeting high-potential segments such as medical/dental (via Desktop Health), metal binder jetting (via its own bound metal and metal binder jetting technologies, as well as ExOne’s).
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 – over 100,000 – 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 did not immediately 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 HQs 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. The company was created around the first commercially available 3D printer capable of producing parts using continuous fibers (carbon, glass or Kevlar) in a thermoplastic matrix (mainly nylon). It is based on Markforged’s patented Continuous Filament Fabrication (CFF) 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 closed several more high profile financing rounds and has expanded its offer to industrial-grade composite 3D printers and subsequently new bound metal family of systems (similar to Desktop Metal’s) called Metal X. Markforged also went public via a SPAC merger and is listed on the NYSE since 2021, with yearly revenues close to $100 million.
Pushing metal boundaries
One of the most interesting and fascinating new metal 3D printing companies in the Boston area is Seurat, based in Wilmington. The company was founded by James DeMuth, a former laser specialist at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) – where the United States is working on igniting commercial nuclear fusion via concentrated lasers. DeMuth and his partners developed a high throughput metal AM technology called Area Printing and just raised investments for a total of $79M. Seurat’s business model is to sell parts rather than machines, which makes sense for any new and particularly innovative technology. Seurat’s machines can achieve economies of scale because they are very large and thus also very expensive to own. We are talking about a laser system powering a machine that is delivering a 1,700 Kg per hour print rate. A factory of six of these would be a third of a gigawatt of power and would be able to manufacture 92,000 metric tons of parts per year. Even with these huge energy requirements, DeMuth is more certain that Seurat’s technology will be able to dramatically decarbonize manufacturing compared to current casting processes.
VulcanForms, another very interesting company targeting metal AM for mass production, is also based in the Boston area. Born out of MIT, the company is looking to commercialize the first fully scalable, industrial metal additive manufacturing (AM) solution. The company has not yet gone public with its first products but says that “building the world’s most powerful and advanced metal AM system is the first step towards our vision of lights-out, highest quality metal AM mass production.”
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 nearby 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.
Even in the investment-rich Boston area, things are not always easy. Digital Alloys, a company founded in 2017 in Burlington attracted high-profile investors, closing a $12.9 million round to fund the development of its Joule Printing technology. The company’s goal was to bring metal prototyping to the desktop through a more affordable metal AM process working with any metal in wire form and using joule heating – the most efficient way to convert electrical energy into heat to melt it from within. The company however was not able to fully bring its products to the market and permanently closed in July 2021.
Pushing polymer boundaries
Delving into the world of polymers and composite additive manufacturing, the only photopolymerization company to do so commercially, 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 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.
Another pioneering polymer AM company that could not be absent from this review of Boston 3D printing companies is Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF). This specialist in micro 3D printing – which is actually a rapidly growing trend – originates in Shenzhen and now has facilities in both China and the US. Both locations were built to serve the BMF’s expanding customer base which, in most cases, has global operations that span across North America, Europe and Asia. BMF recently moved its North American headquarters to a new 7,000 square foot facility at the Mill & Main complex in Maynard, MA. This location houses the company’s corporate team, including sales, marketing, applications engineering and customer support, with multiple platform systems for training, testing and customer benchmarking. In Shenzhen, BMF moved to a 14,000-square-foot facility that includes more than 40 installed BMF systems.
Originating at MIT, Inkbit is another Boston company introducing a high-speed photopolymerization AM technology and targeting production applications. The company is located in Medford, Massachusetts and its Vista system is designed for end-use polymer 3D printed parts. It does this by incorporating a novel technology called Vision-Controlled Jetting (VCJ) that delivers high-resolution print capability enabling users to print parts with dimensional accuracy and precision at high volume. Inkbit has raised $30 million through a Series B funding round led by Phoenix Venture Partners LLC (PVP).
The investment is enabling the company to accelerate production of the Inkbit Vista and to expand its sales in the United States as well as abroad. In February, the company launched the Inkbit Vista and, in March, it secured a sizeable research grant from the United States Air Force. Now, the company is better positioned to boost the production of its highly automated additive manufacturing platform as well as create new sales opportunities at home and internationally.
Also spinning out of MIT (and with funding from high profile investors such as BMW), RLP is developing a new class of 3D printers that can produce large-scale, high-resolution, soft and stretchable products in minutes with the highest quality industrial materials. The company says its is working with researchers and industry-leading companies around the world on applications including medical devices, footwear, home goods, furniture, aviation, and automotive components. Its Rapid Liquid Printing was originally developed at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, where a liquid object is “drawn” in 3-dimensions within a gel suspension. The object cures while printing and then is ready for use with minimal post-processing. RLP produces large-scale objects from high-grade materials such as rubber, foams, and plastics in a matter of minutes. Traditional 3D printing is restricted by slow speeds, limited build volumes, and poor material quality, which makes it unreliable as a mainstream manufacturing process. RLP changes the game for creating large-scale, elastomeric, airtight, and high-quality products in minutes.
Rize was 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 produced parts with high isotropic strength, resulting in near zero-post-processing; minimizing time-consuming support removal and producing usable parts. Unfortunately, the company was not able to fully scale its operations and shut down in 2022.
Some interesting European companies have also decided to set up their US HQ in the Boston area. One of these is BigRep, the very first company to envision the launch of an affordable large-format polymer 3D printer, now a major trend for 3D printing all over the world. BigRep was founded in Berlin by the late René Gurka, who stood out as a true visionary, inspiring everyone around him to achieve the unimaginable and building BigRep into a global brand. Another one is Cellink, now BICO, a leader in the young bioprinting industry. Cellink emerged in Sweden by introducing a low-cost bioprinting hardware system in a way similar to what Formlabs did for SLA. Now, after several high-profile acquisitions, and in spite of some recent difficulties, it is a global bioconvergence company, listed on the Swedish Nasdaq.
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 startups 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 southwest of 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.
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 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 May 9th, 2022 to reflect all the major events that have taken place since the article was originally published in 2018.
Nano Dimension’s Global VP Sales, Tim Sheehan, is a Bostonian who’s located at the heart of America’s ‘new’ 3D printing sector – Boston.
Managing Nano Dimension’s sales, a company from the heart of Israel’s 3D Printing sector. And there you have the two hearts connected 🙂