The newest 3D printer company in town is all about stiffness.
Most of today’s inexpensive desktop printers can crank out a good plastic prototype or a model made from resin. But Somerville-based MarkForged has started taking pre-orders for a $5,000 printer that will be able to produce parts you can put on a car, or prosthetics you can walk on, because they combine plastic and much tougher materials like carbon fiber or Kevlar. The company says its printer can make objects that are 20 times stiffer and five times stronger than comparable plastic pieces.
MarkForged made a big splash in January when it emerged from stealth mode at the SolidWorks World trade show. “I was blown away by your product,” Gian Paolo Bassi, VP of research and development at Waltham-based SolidWorks, declared onstage at the event. And the company has attracted advisors including Marina Hatsopoulos, the former CEO of 3D printing pioneer Z Corp., and OnShape founder Jon Hirschtick.
It has also raised a previously-unannounced seed round of $1.1 million from North Bridge Venture Partners and Matrix Partners. CEO Greg Mark says he expects to close a larger round of funding in the next month or two.
The sleek-looking MarkForged printer has two spools of material that can feed its print head with filament: one holds plastic (nylon), and the other can hold carbon fiber, fiberglass, or Kevlar. When it prints, layers of plastic hold the carbon fiber in place. Afterward, there’s no curing or post-processing required, Mark says. “And there’s no off-gassing of volatile compounds, which means this can go under your desk,” he adds. The printer is also wifi-enabled, so anyone with the password can send 3D files to it for printing.
Mark says that when the printer debuted in January, “the most common question people had was, ‘When can I get a bigger one?'” (The first generation printer can produce objects that are about 12″ by 6.25″ by 6.25″.) He says pre-orders have come in from aerospace companies, shoe designers, bike makers, and hardware startups.
The company has been zipping along like a fiberglass powerboat. It was founded in March of 2013, and got its seed funding over the summer. Mark says the unveiling happened about a month sooner than the company had planned, because of the opportunity to be onstage at SolidWorks World. He says that “friends and family” of the company and its advisors will start getting “Mark One” printers in March and April. After some debugging and fine-tuning, others who have pre-ordered it will begin receiving theirs in July. Early manufacturing will be done at the company’s Somerville workspace. “It’s important that these first 500 to 1000 machines are easy to use for any engineer,” Mark says. MarkForged has seven full-time employees.
“The cheapest 3D printer than makes metal parts is $250,000 and is the size of a small room,” says Ric Fulop, the partner at North Bridge who invested in MarkForged. “The MarkForged printer can make lighter and stronger parts for less than $5,000, and is compact enough to go on your desk. It’s a big breakthrough.” Fulop and Mark originally met when Mark was developing an idea for a quick-charge system for electric vehicles, which didn’t fly; Fulop was a founder of the battery company A123 Systems, and he drives a Tesla Roadster.
Mark spent the first few months of the company’s existence operating out of a conference room at North Bridge’s Waltham office, surreptitiously sneaking large tools and test instruments in, hoping not to make a fuss. Mark’s prior company, Needham-based Aeromotions, makes computer-controlled carbon fiber wings for race cars.
Hatsopoulos, an advisor to the company, says that Mark has “built a beautiful machine which makes fabulous parts, and he’s developed some critical industry relationships. I think this is the most exciting thing to come into the 3D printing space in a while.” Antonio Rodriguez, who made the investment for Matrix, was an early angel investor in MakerBot, the New York-based 3D printer startup that was acquired last year by Stratasys.
Right now, the big job at MarkForged is starting to ship printers. But Mark says he doesn’t see why the company can’t eventually make printers big enough to produce an entire car body, bike frame, or boat. And he said that when prosthetics designer Hugh Herr saw the printer, both men were intrigued by the idea of using a MarkForged printer to make differently-shaped prosthetic devices, see which ones are most comfortable and functional for a given user, and then finalize the design.
Here’s the video from Mark’s presentation at SolidWorks World in January:
Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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