3D printing start-up wins backing from GE, BMW and Nikon

Carbon3D in action.jpg

Carbon, one of the best-financed 3D printing start-ups, has brought in General Electric, BMW and Nikon as strategic investors, reflecting a wider race by the 3D printing industry to move its technology into full manufacturing production.

The San Francisco-based company said on Thursday that it had raised an extra $81m, taking the total in its three-year life to $222m. Until now it has relied for capital on Silicon Valley backers including Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake and GV, formerly known as Google Venture.

Carbon has been one of the most closely watched new 3D printing companies this year, due to a technology known as continuous liquid interface production, which uses a photochemical process to produce finished parts from baths of liquid resin. The company claims its process makes parts much faster than other forms of so-called “additive” manufacturing, and with a finish comparable to injection moulding.

The latest financing round is intended to “top off the tank”, completing the fundraising Carbon will need to develop its business, said Joseph DeSimone, chief executive. It will also bring in manufacturing partners and extend Carbon’s technology alliances.

The GE investment, made through the company’s venture capital arm, comes as GE has started to place bigger bets on 3D printing as a manufacturing technique. Last week, the US manufacturing group unveiled offers worth a combined $1.4bn for two European 3D printing companies, Arcam of Sweden and Germany’s SLM Solutions. While the acquisitions signal that GE is increasingly becoming a competitor to other 3D printing companies, rather than simply a customer, the latest acquisitions are of companies that produce metal parts, not the plastics that Carbon works in.

Carbon’s technology has been in trials with manufacturers since last summer and its 3D printers were officially launched in March this year. Some 10,000 parts have been produced with its machines so far, Mr DeSimone said, with BMW producing components for Minis in Germany.

In another sign of experimentation by carmakers, Peugeot on Thursday announced a partnership with Divergent 3D, a US company that last year showed off a “supercar” built of 3D printed structural components. The French carmaker said it would start by using Divergent’s technology to make prototypes but would explore how to extend it to mainstream production.

The first wave of excitement about 3D printing ended in disappointment after the machines failed to graduate far beyond the amateur “maker movement” and a role in industrial prototyping. But big recent investments by companies such as GE and HP Inc have raised hopes that the technology, which has been used for a while to make small-volume, high-value parts, will soon play a bigger role in mainstream manufacturing.