Seurat Technologies, a Wilmington 3-D metal printing company, is getting ready for the big time.
Chief executive James DeMuth says his company will build a 100,000-square-foot factory in the Boston area to mass produce metal parts using the company’s laser printing system. Scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2024, the plant will be the first large-scale application of a new approach to metal printing that could make parts up to 100 times faster than existing systems.
DeMuth plans to erect similar facilities throughout the United Staters, close to major manufacturing centers, so that companies can get parts made to order in weeks rather than months.
Other companies also use lasers and powdered metals to create specialized parts. But DeMuth says his company’s machines are already 10 times faster than rival products, making them more cost-competitive with older ways of shaping metal, like casting or stamping. And by 2025, the company expects to again speed up the process by a factor of 10.
“We can hit price points that are attractive to high-volume production,” said DeMuth, who thinks his system can bring a lot of high-end parts manufacturing back to the United States. His advice: “Don’t have parts made on the other side of the world. Have them made locally. Streamline that supply chain.”
Founded in 2015, Seurat is named for a 19th century French painter who created images by putting dots of paint on the canvas, rather than brushstrokes. The company’s laser printers work in much the same way.
A metal powder — steel, aluminum, or even gold — is spread onto a flat surface. A powerful laser dances across the powder, outlining the shape of the desired part with dots of light. The bits of powder hit by the laser are fused by the heat and become solid metal. A new layer of powder is added, and the laser sweeps over it to make the next layer of solid metal. The process continues layer by layer, until the part is finished.
“It is a fantastic technology for prototyping and tooling,” said Tim Greene, a 3-D printing analyst for IDC Corp. in Framingham, “but there has been a challenge to make production-oriented 3-D printing systems.”
It’s a matter of speed: Many 3-D jobs take hours to complete, or even longer. Indeed, a team of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California figured it would take 200 years to laser-print a reaction chamber for an experimental nuclear fusion reactor they were building.
DeMuth was part of that team and figured there had to be a better way.
He and some colleagues worked up a new approach that used lenses to divide up one laser beam into thousands of smaller beams that could be individually aimed at the powder. Now, each layer of metal can be created far faster, making the system a more practical tool for high-volume manufacturing.
Many industrial firms use 3-D metal printing to build prototype parts or low-volume specialty components. But they won’t be getting hold of a Seurat machine any time soon. Rather than sell its systems, Seurat is becoming a contract manufacturer, making custom metal parts to order. The startup says it’s already working with 14 companies in the energy and consumer products industries. And it’s got a 7,000-square-foot pilot plant under construction to fill these customers’ needs. (This plant is expected to begin production in the first quarter of 2023.)
DeMuth said the bigger plant is needed since Seurat recently signed deals with three major manufacturers to supply them with 25 metric tons of parts. He said the site of the new plant hasn’t been selected yet. DeMuth also wouldn’t identify the parts he’ll be making there or the companies that will be buying them.
But the investors who’ve provided Seurat with $79 million in funding include the venture arms of manufacturers like General Motors, Siemens, Xerox, and Porsche.
Gero Corman, head of digital innovation for the Volkswagen Group, which owns 75 percent of Porsche, said his company uses 3-D metal printing to produce prototype parts and manufacturing tools. “Everybody is trying out low-volume cases and waiting for the technology to mature,” Corman said.
But when it comes to mass production, he said, “it’s still much too expensive, and that’s where Seurat fits in.” Corman said Porsche has recently begun testing the company’s systems, and “the machine is much faster than anything that is on the market . . . Seurat can be a game changer there.”