Is Velo3D Poised to Revolutionize 3-D Printing—and Robotics?

Metal 3-D printing is due for disruption, and Velo3D might be looking to do just that

2 min read
Is Velo3D Poised to Revolutionize 3-D Printing—and Robotics?
Illustration: iStockphoto

Velo3D, based in Santa Clara, Calif., has $22.1 million in venture investment to do something in 3-D printing: That makes it fourth among 2015’s best-funded stealth-mode tech companies in the United States, according to CB Insights. This dollar number is about all the hard news that has come out of this startup, founded in 2014 by Benyamin Butler and Erel Milshtein. But job postings, talks at conferences, and other breadcrumbs left along Velo3D's development trail—has created a sketchy outline of this company’s plans.

Consider which 3-D printing technology is ready for disruption: metal. 3-D printing of plastics took off after 2009, when a key patent that covered the deposition technology expired; we now have desktop printers for 3-D plastic objects as cheap as $350. Printing of metal objects—done regularly in industry, particularly aerospace—uses a different, and, to date, far more expensive technology: selective laser sintering. This technology melts metal powders into solid shapes; it requires high temperatures, and far more complicated equipment than what’s found in the layering sort of printers used for plastic. The patent for this technology expired in early 2014—just before the formation of Velo3D. At the time, industry experts indicated that there wouldn’t be cheap metal printers coming anytime soon, but rather, would only come after “a significant breakthrough on the materials side,” OpenSLS’s Andreas Bastian told GigaOm in 2014. Could Velo3D’s founders have that breakthrough figured out?

They may have. The two founders, Butler and Milshtein, have developed technology together before. They both worked at First Solar, Solyndra, and Applied Materials, and along the way picked up joint patents on various mechanisms for rotating semiconductor materials, cutting them, and directing beams of radiation. Clearly they know something about state of the art manufacturing processes.

And if they haven’t yet found the answer, they certainly think they can get there, as their latest want-ads show: the company has listings posted for a lead mechanical engineer experienced with the implementation of laser scanning systems who is interested in “revolutionizing metal manufacturing.” It’s also looking for multiple recent graduates in physics or materials science with lab experience to implement its “disruptive vision of metal 3D printing.” And the company last year petitioned for an H1B visa for a senior metallurgist.

Now what is Velo3D going to do with a revolutionary new metal 3D printing technology, once it has come up with one? Based on the name, my initial reaction is custom bicycle parts, but the signs point instead towards robot parts. At least, 3-D printed metal robots are what Golem Robotics founder Ofer Shochet thinks is the next big thing. Shochet, who just happens to be one of Velo3D’s directors, led a panel on the subject at the RoboUniverse conference this past November. The world, Shochet said, as reported in is going to see a greater convergence of robotics and 3-D printing. Panelist Ryan Sybrant from Stratsys went on to explain 3-D printing is key for robotics because it allows structures to be created that couldn’t be made otherwise, lighter parts for more dynamic robots, and robots that can be easily customized.

One other breadcrumb along the trail: Velo3D shares an address with an established 3-D printing company—Octave Systems, a distributor of multiple brands of home and hobbyist 3-D printers and supplies. That’s a handy roommate to have if you’re trying to understand and disrupt an industry.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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