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 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.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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