VulcanForms: Laser Focused on the Production Line of the Future

Integrated digital production facilities are a critical infrastructure that will accelerate domestic and global innovation and draw top talent to the manufacturing sector. VulcanForms, an MIT-born company, brings forth metal additive manufacturing as a scalable industrial process, and as a cornerstone of breakthrough digital production systems.

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Imagine you’re standing in a factory that makes products out of metal. It’s loud, right? With lots of machines tooled to make very specific products. But what if there was another way of manufacturing metal products and components, one that is virtually silent, a factory that has no production line? Can the traditional manufacturing process really be digitized?

About VulcanForms

VulcanForms, supported by PTC Partner PDSVISION, is an MIT-born company that builds and operates advanced digital manufacturing infrastructure. VulcanForms brings forth metal additive manufacturing as a scalable industrial process, and as a cornerstone of breakthrough digital production systems. Integrated digital production facilities are critical infrastructure which will accelerate domestic and global innovation and draw top talent to the manufacturing sector. They also make products for aviation, space exploration and the defense industry. Instead of the traditional manufacturing method of the metal being cast and forged, the metal parts are 3D printed when a laser is passed over a powdered metal. This cuts down on costs by reducing the physical supply chain needed to make the metal parts. Plus, the precise positioning of the lasers allows for very intricate designs and patterns to be printed, meaning that new product designs can be created and with less risk – and less cost.

What does VulcanForms Do?

VulcanForms produces engineered components for some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies, companies that make breakthrough medical devices, consumer electronics, components for aviation, space and defense applications, and more. Vulcan 1, VulcanForms first production facility in Devins, Massachusetts, has 150,000 square feet dedicated to integrated digital production, including additive manufacturing by laser powder bed fusion. Products such as watches, whether electronic watches or traditional watches, typically have a metallic housing, which might be traditionally cast or forged, and precision machined. VulcanForm can transform the production of those components, and significantly compact the supply chain using digital manufacturing, using 3D printing as the first part of the process.

What was the original idea behind the company?

“When we started VulcanForms in 2015, Martin [Feldman, the CEO of VulcanForms] and I had an idea for a new machine architecture to do metal 3D printing,” says John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms and professor and department head in mechanical engineering at MIT. “Early on, we decided we wanted to build the company to do production rather than build and sell machines. Over time, our perspective on that being the way to create scale, to create impact, not just through additive manufacturing, but through digital manufacturing, integrated production overall has only become stronger. The world has realized that 3D printing is different; that by printing objects, instead of casting them or forging them or machining them, you can open up new dimensions of flexibility and you could enable entirely new categories of products. But even today, 3D printing is really a drop in the bucket of manufacturing overall.”

Where it all started

DP1, or Devins Printer Number 1, the first printer built in the Devins facility, is VulcanForms’ proprietary laser powder bed fusion technology. If you’re a 3D printing nerd, you’ve heard of laser powder bed fusion before, and John and Martin founded the company to rearchitect this established additive manufacturing technology for an industrial scale. This printer is larger than most, if not all, printers you’ve ever seen before. But it executes the same basic process: it takes metal powder as a feedstock, and it produces finished components on the build plate. Each powder particle is a little sphere with diameter like that of human hair. That digital transformation from powder to finished part is the essence of additive manufacturing, or digital manufacturing. To bring this machine to life, they had to design the machine and build it entirely in-house.

Why digital manufacturing?

Using digital manufacturing, you can shorten design cycles, explore new product designs, and use new materials with less risk and less cost. That’s very important to the customers VulcanForms works with, who want to stay ahead of competition by having better products brought to market more quickly. In the software world, we have enterprise-level software, enterprise-level relationships. We really want to, and are, building enterprise-level relationships with customers so they understand the capabilities that we can offer, and how we can jointly evolve our capabilities and our relationship over time to become trusted partners where they can make product design advances hand-in-hand with advancements and growth of our manufacturing technology and growth of our footprint.

The 3D process

Every time the printer prints a layer, a gantry system scans over the powder bed and the precise control of the firing of the lasers with the position of the gantry over the powder bed is what builds the part. You could think of a part as this intricate 3D geometry, or you can think of it as an array of three-dimensional pixels or voxels. And the ability to control the energy delivered to the powder bed within each layer and across the layers is what lets the machine achieve the high level of quality, consistency and material and geometric flexibility that makes customers attracted to VulcanForms’ technology and integrated capabilities.

Changing supply chains one layer at a time

Just like many other 3D printing processes, laser powder bed fusion is one layer at a time. But instead of a desktop plastic printer squeezing polymer out of a nozzle, the VulcanForms system spreads a thin layer of metal powder – with a thickness comparable to a human hair – and then the laser system melting the areas of the powder that would match the desired cross section of each part or the array of parts that they are building. “The beauty and the real system-level difference between this kind of manufacturing facility and other factories is the flexibility of production. The fact that by changing the code – and, in some cases, changing just a single line of code or the reference to the digital file that we’re printing – you can completely change the product that you’re manufacturing,” says John. “This is a completely different way to think of resourcing production and balancing capability and resilience in supply chains.”

3D printing fact vs fiction

Sometimes there are misconceptions about 3D printing, or digital manufacturing. One of them is it’s easy, you just press print. “It’s not easy, it’s challenging. It takes several years, and a lot of investment, and technology, and organizational execution to bring a manufacturing process to scale. Second, sometimes you hear, ‘Oh, it’s 10 times faster, 100 times faster, 10 times cheaper.’ That’s not necessarily the case. And it doesn’t need to be,” says John. “Yes, we have a technology that is more scalable, can be more cost effective, is truly viable, and integrated with a whole digital workflow. But we always want to focus on the value that we’re creating rather than the ease of printing or the potential cost savings, because new production technologies historically only really make impact when they create a new capability. We have to think of the new capability that technology creates to bring about real and transformative change.”

Changing patent outcomes

One type of component made by VulcanForms is hip implants, which are inserted into the pelvic bone during hip replacement surgery. The intricate lattice structure on the surface of the part improves the performance of the implant and the speed at which and the strength at which it integrates with the human body and leads to better patient outcomes. The geometry and precision of this lattice is important to the quality and performance of the implant, and VulcanForms’ technology is uniquely capable of achieving fine high precision lattice structures – and doing so at an industrial scale.

Looking at the future

“Generally, we’re manufacturing very high-value components where the material, the geometry and the level of quality needed are differentiated, for consumer electronics and other luxury goods,” says John. The advantages include supply chain simplification, fewer steps and less inks needed in the supply chain to produce the finished product. “You can develop new products and new geometries more quickly too, because you can iterate through the digital manufacturing process without having to request specialized tooling,” he adds. “Plus, there are certain alloys that can be 3D printed that can’t be traditionally manufactured. There are certainly certain product designs, certain aesthetic looks or certain internal features that could be useful to the performance of the device. Thermal management, packing of the electronics, perhaps even RF communications that can be explored by the industry in the future.”

Manufacturing is everything

The advances in manufacturing have shaped the course of history and advancement of quality of life and the human condition. And that is as important today as it ever has been, especially when we’re facing the need to become more sustainable. “Manufacturing drives our daily lives. Step back and think of all the things around you that spent some time in a factory – it’s everything except the living things that are on Earth,” says John. “And in the face of the concerns of supply chain instabilities and geopolitical tensions, we realize how manufacturing is critical to our national security, our health and our ability to explore new worlds and advance the human condition. So that’s why VulcanForms exists: to move manufacturing forward and be a small piece, hopefully a very important piece, of that future.”

VulcanForms and Creo: enabling innovation

VulcanForms’ innovative manufacturing process allows clients to drive innovation by easily changing and testing different designs. One of the tools to help them do this is PTC’s 3D CAD software Creo, which played an important role in expediting the development of VulcanForms next-generation printer. The ability to perform simulations in real-time was an important element to that.

Creo Simulation Live

We want design engineers to be able to accomplish those simulation tasks as part of their design process. So that the simulation experts at VulcanForms can focus on the more complex multi-physics, even highly non-linear problems that are going to be relevant in developing a piece of added manufacturing equipment like VulcanForms is developed here. Creo Simulation Live is well suited to the task of providing in process design guidance. It’s quite a robust simulation, but more focused on individual physics like structural simulation or thermal simulation or modal simulation that is a lot more intuitive and relevant for the design engineer.

What does Creo Simulation Live do

Creo Simulation Live gives the design engineer the type of tool that they can use right there as part of the design process. It’s practically instantaneous because it works on the graphics card and uses a brand-new technology developed by our partners at ANSYS. And it is really, well suited to in process design simulations that, design engineers can accomplish without putting an overload on the simulation team at a company like VulcanForm. So, we’re excited to see VulcanForms take advantage of CREO Simulation Live in this way. It’s exactly what we intended for Creo Simulation Live. And frankly, it’s exactly why this real-time simulation technology inside Creo has been a strong driver for a lot of interest from our customer base over the last several years.

Episode Guests

John Hart, Co-Founder of VulcanForms

More About the VulcanForms

Brian Thompson, Divisional GM, CAD Segment at PTC

More About Creo