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 3DPrint.com 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.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.