In the ever-evolving world of 3D printing, startups often promise groundbreaking technologies and revolutionary approaches. VulcanForms was no different when it stepped onto the scene, armed with a new take on laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) technology and ambitions as high as its early valuations. But as insiders reveal, the journey hasn’t been smooth sailing for the company.
A Technology with Promise but Practical Challenges
Founded in 2018, VulcanForms positioned itself as a revolutionary player in the 3D printing landscape with its LPBF technology. As relayed in an impressive New York Times spread, VulcanForms was lauded with a billion-dollar valuation and $355 million from investors that included Eclipse Ventures, Stata Venture Partners, Fontinalis Partners, D1 Capital Partners, Standard Investments, Atlas Innovate, Boston Seed Capital, Industry Ventures, and the Simkins Family.
At this time last year, VulcanForms claimed to have invested $100 million in capital in the form of 100 employees, as well as two “digital production” facilities in Massachusetts, Devens and Newburyport. The Devens site, called VulcanOne, was said to feature a fleet of the company’s 100kW PBF machines, totaling 2mW of laser capacity, or 250 times more power than existing PBF machines. To create its Newburyport site, it purchased Arwood Machine Corporation. With all of this, VulcanForms said that it supplied more than 12 U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) programs, including the F35 Joint Strike Fighter and Patriot Air Defense System, and “has delivered thousands of components for the semiconductor industry, and is enabling innovation in medical implants.”
Now, it appears that the firm may be undergoing some financial turbulence. Management invested heavily in building multiple machines and leasing additional facilities, stretching the company’s financial limits. All these commitments were made before confirming that the firm’s primary technology was ready for large-scale production.
On paper, the technology had everything going for it—lines of lasers maneuvered directly over the build bed, always kept perpendicular to ensure optimal printing conditions. However, the practical application of this technology has proven to be less reliable than promised. A former employee wishing to remain anonymous reports alarmingly low uptimes and lengthy turnover times, making mass production a lofty goal rather than a feasible reality.
“They designed this machine and their idea was to build 20 of them, fill up a production facility, and go to work. Well, when your machine has a rather low uptime and it takes you three shifts to turn over a machine, you’re really not ready for production,” the employee said. “They had a couple of machines running. They bought basically all the materials to produce 20 of these machines at a cost of about $1.5 to 2 million per machine—invested all this money, bought all the supplies for it, and then basically found out they don’t work.”
According to the former worker, the startup has possible contracts but hasn’t been able to pass the customers’ rigorous standards, raising further questions about their production capabilities.
The startup’s technological challenges stem from key executives, according to staff. The anonymous employee, as well as numerous reviews on Glassdoor, note that the company’s management—especially the CEO—seems to lack the requisite skills to lead a high-performing team. From ramping up production prematurely to making significant financial commitments, the managerial decisions appear to be out of sync with the company’s readiness to deliver.
Glassdoor reviews are pretty consistent in terms of their depiction of the company. Nearly all comments suggest that the ground-level workers are capable and pleasant and that VulcanForms pays well, including the offer of free healthcare. However, there is a regular negative portrayal of the management team. This one review encapsulates what is communicated by many others:
“Extremely high burnout rate and declining morale for the past 6 months. Tons of people have quit or been laid off and there’s no sign that it’s going to stop any time soon. This used to be a good place to work, but that’s no longer the case. Leadership sets absolutely nonsensical deadlines then screams when they aren’t met. Every single task is ‘highest priority’ which means nothing gets done. Leadership’s attention span is low, so every new initiative that you work hard on gets dropped in 2 months. CEO is abrasive and fires people on a whim. No commitment to doing things the right way to produce high-quality products. Feels like we’re constantly trying to disguise things from auditors. HR is terrible. They don’t respond to emails and will change things like pay structure with no notice. I’m no longer convinced that leadership wants to create a successful business. They want to inflate our visibility to make the company look good so we can go public and they can run off with a bunch of money.”
Since it has become increasingly evident that VulcanForms has fumbled its valuation, investors have reportedly reduced their promotional activities for the company, signaling a potential decrease in investor confidence.
The Road Ahead
While the company’s valuation and initial capital were promising, the failure to turn potential into performance has cost VulcanForms dearly. The former employee suggests that with significant changes in management and an intense focus on product development, the company could reach operational effectiveness numbers currently considered positive in the additive manufacturing world.
Despite the hurdles, all might not be lost for VulcanForms. The challenges it faces, although severe, are not insurmountable. With some fundamental shifts in leadership, VulcanForms could still fulfill its initial promise. But as it stands now, the company is a cautionary tale of how even the most promising startups can stumble if they overreach before they’re ready to deliver.
According to the former employee, the company made one round of layoffs earlier this year and has shed at least one facility. With further possible layoffs looming and facilities closing, the coming months will be crucial for VulcanForms.
Given the promise of this LPBF company, the case raises questions about other startups frequently lumped into a similar market category. Seurat and Freeform both claim to have developed high-throughput metal LPBF technologies, but their progress is not exactly clear. It may be that they are able to forge ahead where VulcanForms tripped.
On the other hand, we may learn that the model being pursued by more traditional LPBF manufacturers, like SLM Solutions, is to load up a machine with lasers to increase productivity. Yet another possibility is that there are other companies out there, possibly in China, that may be executing their own versions of VulcanForms’ technology that could rise to ascendancy.
It is not yet over for VulcanForms. We have to ask, will the company manage to right its course, or will it become another startup that flew too close to the sun? Only time will tell.
We have reached out to the company for comment and will update the article accordingly.