- Feb 8, 2022
- 5 min read
Catalyzing Innovation and U.S. Economic Growth: Our Investment in VulcanForms
After five years since our first investment, the Eclipse team is thrilled to announce our partnership with VulcanForms to accelerate its mission to build advanced digital manufacturing infrastructure.
By: Greg Reichow
When I was at Tesla, there was a lot of discussion in the manufacturing community about the promise of additive manufacturing. If you believed the hype, additive manufacturing would enable dramatic integration of parts and new designs that would make building new products faster, lower cost, and higher performing. At the time, SpaceX was already heavily using additive manufacturing to build rocket engines. Between our discussions with the SpaceX team, as well as our own research into the existing capability that was on the market, there were two options: either very slow and expensive processes that delivered high quality components, or fast and lower cost approaches that delivered unacceptable material properties. The reality was that additive manufacturing was not yet ready for the scale of high-volume manufacturing.
The promise of additive manufacturing has always stuck in mind. If someone could crack this puzzle, it would massively impact how we imagine, design and manufacture products. New designs leveraging advanced numerical methods and machine learning algorithms could be realized to improve the performance and efficiency of end products. Fragile and complex supply chains could be consolidated closer to end customers. Fast forward to the present and our current supply chain problems, and the importance of delivering additive manufacturing as a scalable industrial process is more crucial than ever. Yet, it will take more to realize this feat than fancy software and breakthrough additive manufacturing technology. I learned from Tesla that to truly innovate, you often need to build the entire end-to-end system. It would require building an entire digital manufacturing and product innovation ecosystem—from design through final part production—to realize the benefits of additive manufacturing.
Today, after five years since our first investment, the Eclipse team is thrilled to announce our partnership with VulcanForms to accelerate its mission to build advanced digital manufacturing infrastructure. VulcanForms is a MIT-born company that focuses on serial production of precision engineered components and assemblies, leveraging its breakthrough manufacturing technologies. VulcanForms’ Co-Founder and CEO, Martin Feldmann, and I initially connected over a much older manufacturing technology: high-pressure aluminum die casting. We had a shared background in building precision metal parts for cars—Martin came out of a division of Daimler focused on castings and I had experience building a castings facility for Tesla. At the time he reached out to me, VulcanForms consisted just of him and his Co-Founder, John Hart, a professor at MIT, and they had nothing more than a concept and minimal lab testing. What really stood out to me and the Eclipse team was that their approach greatly differed from anything we had seen before. The underlying physics of what they were proposing appeared to be such that it would solve for the three important criteria we had established for unlocking the opportunities of metal additive manufacturing: true mass-manufacturing throughput at appropriate costs with material properties that were equivalent to well-established manufacturing techniques. Instead of having to choose between high-speed/low-cost and high-quality with existing solutions, this approach could deliver on all three. Convinced that the fundamentals were sound, we made a small seed investment. The team put their heads down to build a prototype machine to prove this concept worked. The first prototype machine commissioned within nine months from our investment turned out to be more powerful than any metal additive printer that was being sold commercially at the time. This prototype, and the team that built it, confirmed that their fundamentally new approach works.
Based on this success and our conviction, we preempted the Series A. The team set out to build the first production scale machine. Many other companies have approached this market by starting with a small machine that’s useful for prototypes, but isn’t relevant for serial production. With this approach, they hope to show the machine works for small prototype production and only then try to figure out how to move to production scale. The problem is that production scale systems require radically different designs and thinking. Unlike this conventional approach, VulcanForms started with a focus on designing and building a high-volume production system from the start. With the Series A funding, the team executed and delivered the first production scale machine. It proved that their innovative approach could not only scale, but do so while delivering parts at a quality level not seen in the additive manufacturing market. With our strong conviction in the team and clear demonstration of a production scale system, we again preempted the next round and co-led their Series B to build their first additive foundry, VulcanOne, in Devens, MA. In early 2022, VulcanForms expanded its capabilities through the acquisition of a precision machining and industrial automation company in Newburyport, MA. Both digital manufacturing facilities are now in serial production, delivering the world’s most advanced engineered components to customers in critical industries.
Move Fast and Make Things!
The company’s motto is a bit of a spin on the Silicon Valley meme of “Move Fast and Break Things.” It is “Move Fast and Make Things.” This mentality has been a core part of their culture and from the beginning, they’ve focused on the idea that they’re building technology not for the sake of building technology, but to solve customer problems. This means that they’re not trying to build a machine to sell to somebody, they’re building a company that builds engineered parts for customers and at a speed that is unparalleled. For example, they were put in touch with a customer that had a problem with a complex heat exchanger that the company had not been able to source. Within 48 hours, the VulcanForms team ran the design through their software to determine the correct process conditions, printed and post-processed evaluation parts, and shipped the parts to this customer. This fast turnaround allowed the customer to solve a critical failure mode that was limiting their ability to ship systems. Today, VulcanForms’ customers include leading companies in defense, aerospace, medical, semiconductor, and other critical industries.
Revitalizing U.S. Manufacturing and Hardware Innovation
Our modern society has been built on the back of manufacturing. Every dollar spent on manufacturing contributes an additional $2.79 to the U.S. economy—a higher multiple than that of any other industry. Manufacturing has raised the standard of living, quality of life for generations, and has driven innovation like no other industry. Yet, manufacturing employment has dropped by over 40% since 1980 and wages and capital investment are nearly stagnant due to decades of offshoring. This development has increased the US’ dependency on overseas manufacturing, making our supply chains susceptible to geopolitical dynamics and disruptions as we’ve painfully come to learn over the past couple of years.
However, we can’t just decide to move manufacturing back in the same manner that it is being built today. Many of the relevant supply chains no longer exist, nor is it economically feasible to rebuild them the “old” way. VulcanForms’ integrated approach solves the problem by enabling distributed, digitally-connected production near end markets without massive investments in tooling and upstream supply chains that otherwise make reshoring financially unattractive. By enabling an agile workflow, VulcanForms will dramatically impact the way products are imagined, designed, built, and delivered for decades to come—and, ultimately, will play a massive role in revitalizing U.S. manufacturing and hardware innovation.
Congratulations to Martin, John, and the entire VulcanForms team!