James DeMuth ’08 3D printing is a revolutionary method that has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing.
James DeMuth ’08 has pioneered a method of 3D printing that could change manufacturing forever.
When James DeMuth ’08 He sees a completely different landscape when he thinks about manufacturing in 20 years.
Gone are the grim factories filled with smog that can choke your lungs. No more complex, inefficient supply chains. Instead, he envisions a more open and innovative ecosystem. Local facilities around the world will use green technology to print custom parts and other components whenever and wherever they are needed.
The entire process is simple, fast, and logical. This is how you’d draw it up if you could start from scratch.
“Manufacturing must be closer to the customer,” DeMuth says. “Having products produced in a faraway factory has clearly failed to be the best economic and environmental approach.”
DeMuth is at the tail end a global pandemic which has wreaked havoc upon manufacturing. He realizes that this all sounds like a dream, but it’s actually not. In fact, the first step toward a manufacturing ecosystem that offers a lower cost of entry, more opportunities for innovation, and less waste might already be underway.
Thanks to an innovation in laser patterning, DeMuth’s company, Seurat Technologies, is ready to build this ecosystem, and it starts with the 3D printing of metal. Through a process called powder bed fusion, Seurat’s latest prototype offers pixel-level design control while outpacing other 3D printers by 10 times.
“The goal is to transform manufacturing for our people and our planet,” the CEO and co-founder says. “We want to democratize manufacturing. You print parts where they’re needed, when they’re needed.”
When people think of 3D printing, they’re usually picturing a process called fused deposition modeling, a hot glue gun style of printing popular with hobbyists. However, 3D printing has been around since the 1980s in many forms. It uses lasers or ultraviolet lights to fuse powder or resin for intricate prototypes. Traditionally, these processes weren’t very efficient—only a handful of parts could be made at a time—but the cost and detail made them attractive for manufacturers.
3D printing, despite its limitations, has been long considered disruptive in manufacturing. Casting and forging are costly, so manufacturers must create new tools whenever they need to modify a design. The high cost of entry restricts innovation and blocks eco-friendly options, which is crucial as manufacturing is one of the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.
3D printing has been a promising technology in recent years. SpaceX used selective lasersintering (SLS), a technique to 3D print its SuperDraco rocket engines and even a concrete structure. But when it came time to scale, the technology hasn’t kept up. Manufacturing requires high quality products, low costs, and good production. 3D printing can currently produce one to two pieces at a stretch.
Seurat’s breakthrough in laser patterning could change that. Seurat is named after Georges Seurat (French Post-Impressionist artist). He popularized a technique called Pointillism, which uses small dots to create images. Seurat attracted the attention of companies such as Xerox Ventures and Siemens Energy. Seurat, which has more than 80 employees and has filed over 166 patent applications, will open its pilot plant in Wilmington, Mass. later this year.
If DeMuth is right and Seurat’s new technology can make 3D printing more cost effective, that’s when everything changes—more efficient supply chains, fewer obstacles to innovation, and greener processes.
“We want to change the way the world does manufacturing,” DeMuth says.
The right problem can be solved
DeMuth is able to track the beginnings and evolution of Seurat Technologies all the way back to Professor Chris Kitts’ Robotics Systems Lab at Santa Clara. DeMuth and Kitts collaborated on his senior design project to create disaster recovery robots that can enter buildings after an earthquake.
The idea was to make small, four-legged robots that could detect gases like natural gas and propane using wireless cameras. “They would essentially run ops inside disaster zones,” DeMuth recalls.
It was ambitious. Robots with legs allow for more maneuverability—climbing over wreckage and other obstacles a wheeled robot can’t—but programming is far more difficult. A wheeled robot can be controlled by slowing one side of the wheels to tell it how to turn, go, stop or stop. DeMuth needed to program each limb individually and together to make a legged robot. These commands were then linked to a joystick that could be used to drive the robot.
“We hadn’t done much with that. Most of what we were building was wheeled systems,” Kitts remembers. “But he was very talented and driven. He had a vision of what he wanted. I didn’t have to tell him to recruit a team with certain types of skills. He took care of all that.”
Within a few months, DeMuth’s robot could walk around the lab in Guadalupe Hall, and climb over obstacles several inches high. But even with their success, DeMuth couldn’t shake the feeling he was solving the wrong problem. While the robot worked, restrictions on battery life at the time—especially for the four-legged bot—were a serious problem. “You can only go so long on a battery pack,” DeMuth says.
DeMuth studied mechatronics as well as biomechanical design while at Stanford University’s graduate program. But throughout his research, he, again, ran into the same battery issues over and over. “I decided I needed to solve the root of the problem,” DeMuth says. “So I went into the energy systems track.”
After graduate school, DeMuth went to work with the National Ignition Facility, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. One of his first assignments was to design an enormous chamber for nuclear fusion. DeMuth and his colleagues tried powder bedfusion (PBF), as a solution. PBF is a form of 3D printing that spreads a thin layer of powder metal and uses a laser to melt—or weld—areas of the powder into a pattern. Once one layer has been completed, a spreader is used to spread another layer of powder over the platform. Next, each layer is sequentially bonded to the next using a vertical process.
3D printing provided the accuracy it required, but manufacturing a 39-foot nuclear reactor chamber using a laser as narrow as a hair was like painting Sistine Chapel with a paintbrush and one bristle. “It was going to take me 200 years. That’s not going to fly,” DeMuth says. “Then we got into: how do we make additive manufacturing go faster?”
Fundamentally, going faster requires more power. However, doing it with one laser greatly impacts precision. The Sistine Chapel is a great example. Use a paint roller to paint the eyes of Adam or Eve.
You can also run more lasers but this is a delicate dance. Lasers within the powder bed need to avoid each others, which is possible but complex. Heat and soot were the bigger concerns. The laser creates a soot cloud, similar to steam from a boiling pot. Lasers must avoid this soot cloud and sparks can fly off if the powder becomes too hot.
“They land in areas of virgin powder,” DeMuth says. “Since they’re irregularly sized, they don’t print the same as the other powder. They’re print defects waiting to happen.”
Find the straight way
DeMuth believes that Santa Clara was a place where problem-solving was a part of his education. He didn’t just learn math or science skills he needed for engineering—he was challenged to look at problems differently.
Professor Phil Kesten’s physics class, homework and tests often included estimation questions. Santa Clara had students estimate the number of pizzas consumed each week. You could also figure out how many ping-pong balls you could fit into a lecture hall. There were no wrong or right answers. Just good and bad reasoning.
“It taught me to take a step back,” DeMuth says. “I found you could often find a straight path to get where you wanted to go.”
DeMuth, along with his team from Lawrence Livermore Lab, discovered a straight path through laser patterning in 2011. DeMuth’s laser patterning process is a little like a funnel. A modular laser projecting from the top is formed into a square beam. This beam merges with the blue light pattern of a digital light processing projector. Further down, a polarizing reflector splits the positive and the negative polarization states. Finally, it is sent to the powder bed for welding.
The process works in a similar way to camera film. It dimms or lets through the laser parts it likes and eliminates the ones it doesn’t. This gives the printer the power and control of a large laser but with the ease of small ones.
“If I can choose my own power plant, then I can choose my own energy source. If I can choose my own energy source, I can guarantee I’m getting green, clean energy.”
“It’s as though you’ve split the one laser beam up into a million different individual pixel-sized lasers that are controllable,” DeMuth says. “But the image is continuous. There are no gaps between pixels. Each pixel can be on, off, or grayscale, and any value in between.”
DeMuth was able to make the discovery and he negotiated an agreement that allowed employees to license inventions from Livermore so they could start their own businesses. Seurat Technologies was founded by Erik Toomre (an operations veteran from Tesla) and DeMuth.
Seurat’s Generation 1 system produces a laser about the size of a postage stamp with 2.4 million fully controllable pixels. The powder bed and motion system can simultaneously handle up to 40 laser shots per minute, which allows for increased productivity that is comparable to traditional manufacturing techniques.
Seurat’s advantage is additionally in temperature control. Because it’s a parallel process, the laser doesn’t have to move any faster or run any hotter than necessary, eliminating sparks and spatter, and greatly minimizing soot production.
DeMuth’s team can produce highly customized parts on the cooling side by controlling the material properties through crystal structure, grain orientation and residual stress buildup. Seurat has the ability to control composition down to 25 microns (think heavy duty aluminum foil), and can create components that are well-suited for high-temperature, high stress, high-fatigue environments such as turbomachinery or engine-related parts. DeMuth anticipates that Seurat will initially print parts for use in the industrial, automotive and energy sectors.
Unlike traditional manufacturing, large OEMs often release new models for production. This means that the design can be modified without any hardware investment. Companies don’t need to calculate the cost of new tooling; they simply need to design it.
A dream of independent energy and aircraft carriers
The word disruptive is popular a lot in Silicon Valley, but in a space like manufacturing, it’s fairly easy to see the straight line between technological innovation and widespread impact. Seurat’s printer outproduces other state-of-the-art 3D printers by 10 times. DeMuth further expects each generation of Seurat’s area printer to outperform the previous by 10 times. “It’s an incredibly scalable technology,” DeMuth says.
How will that translate in the market? DeMuth predicts that Seurat will be able to make highly customized parts for less than $25 per kilo by 2030. Silverware costs about $35 per kilo and metal screws are $15 at the hardware shop.
“When you’re anywhere in that price range,” DeMuth says, “you’re talking about commodity items.”
By starting a new form of manufacturing that’s vertically integrated, Seurat is not only designing its own process but developing its own lasers and facilities and deciding where to put them. That means the company can shape an entire ecosystem that’s more efficient and sustainable, and possibly sheltered from global politics.
“The goal here,” he emphasizes, “is to bring back jobs to local communities, whether your local community is in the U.S. or Singapore. You have more flexibility to make the right business decisions.”
Seurat could for instance build a factory next to OEMs who purchase them, or close to the mine that it obtains its powder alloy. DeMuth states that Seurat could eventually build manufacturing facilities for aircraft carriers-sized ships that travel from port to point. The parts would be printed onboard, and then unloaded to OEMs.
“There are lots of different scenarios you can dream up,” DeMuth says.
This flexibility could be extended to power generation. DeMuth could see a day when a plant could produce 92,000 metric tons per year of metal components and consume a third of the gigawatt of electricity. Seurat will build its own power plant instead of using an existing one.
“If I can choose my own power plant, then I can choose my own energy source,” DeMuth says. “If I can choose my own energy source, I can guarantee I’m getting green, clean energy that’s not CO2 emitting—whether it’s wind, solar, geo, or nuclear.”
Seurat has kept its word so far. The pilot factory that Seurat is currently building in Wilmington, remember? It’s powered entirely by renewables. Seurat will follow a similar strategy in future locations.
“Energy is the engine of every economy, and we use a lot of it,” DeMuth says. “As new technologies and challenges force us to rethink how we power our world, we must transition to energy solutions that meet our nation’s security and economic needs and help us work toward our climate goals.”