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This Lockheed Martin-backed startup 3D-prints aluminum for EV parts

Three-year-old Alloy Enterprises, which is 3D printing aluminum, counts Lockheed Martin, Robert Downey Jr.’s venture fund among its early investors.

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Alloy is developing and scaling 3D-printing technology to create components for the automotive, industrial and heavy equipment sectors. Courtesy of Alloy Enterprises

Cans. Roofs. Beer kegs. Computer enclosures. Electric vehicle components. These are five wide-ranging applications for aluminum, one of the world’s most commonly used metals across pretty much any sector you can name.

Lightweight and strong, aluminum is produced at a rate of about 68 million metric tons annually (as of 2021), but a big bump in demand is coming as industries race to electrify vehicles and industrial processes, predicts the International Energy Agency (IEA). Last year, volume expanded by 4 percent, driven by a spike in production for automotive and transport applications. 

Alloy Enterprises, a three-year-old 3D-printing startup from Burlington, Massachusetts, is seeking to ride that growth wave, while cutting emissions and waste in the process. In May, it closed an oversubscribed, $26 million Series A funding round led by Piva Capital and including MassMutual Catalyst Fund, Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition. That brings total backing to $37 million, including $3 million in August from aerospace company Lockheed Martin.

"As Lockheed Martin endeavors to create an even more resilient, agile, efficient and cost effective supply chain, we see the unique additive metal process Alloy is developing as an enabling technology," said Chris Moran, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures, in a statement. "We have several use cases for Alloy's capability, and we want to see this technology succeed." 

Newfangled fab

Alloy is developing and scaling 3D-printing technology that combines laser-cutting techniques and "diffusive bonding" (a solid state welding method) to create components for the automotive, industrial and heavy equipment sectors. It uses coiled sheets of aluminum as the raw input, rather than the powders typically required by other types of 3D metal printers. That makes for lower material costs by "an order of magnitude" at higher production volumes than has traditionally been the case for 3D metal printing, according to Alloy CEO Ali Forsyth, a serial entrepreneur with engineering degrees from Harvard and Princeton.

While Forsyth declined to name Alloy’s customers, she said the company has inked contracts with Fortune 100 accounts in all three of its target customer demographics. The electrification movement is opening doors. "We need a way to make these components in an efficient way, and we need to move at the speed of innovation," she said.

The new funding will help scale Alloy’s production this summer and qualify its systems to produce more parts in volume. "This is a breakthrough for the industry that addresses the need for reasonable lead times, major cost reductions and on-demand manufacturing, delivering direct benefits to EV, industrial and heavy equipment," said Maria Buitron, an investor with Piva Capital, when the funding was announced.

Just how much will Alloy’s production process reduce carbon footprints for manufacturers that use its approach?

That depends on the origin of the aluminum coils used as a feedstock. According to the IEA, primary aluminum production accounts for about 3 percent of annual industrial emissions worldwide. For comparison, steel accounts for about 8 percent.

Aluminum refining and smelting account for about 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions related to its production, while recycled production, anode production and casting account for the rest. Alloy’s impact will fall into that latter category, so its process addresses just a small fraction of the reduction potential.

Over the past decade, however, plenty of energy has gone toward reducing the emissions impact of primary aluminum production and in promoting aluminum’s reputation as an "infinitely recyclable" material.  

Among manufacturers, Apple has been particularly public about its investments in decarbonizing aluminum, which include a joint venture with Alcoa and Rio Tinto alongside the iPhone recovery efforts it is enabling through investments in disassembly robots. As of its 2022 environmental update, two-thirds of Apple’s aluminum components included recycled content.

Little has been disclosed about how Lockheed Martin intends to use Alloy’s technology. The aerospace company’s infusion for Alloy last year came in the form of a SAFE agreement, a.k.a. simple agreement for future equity, which means Lockheed Martin could wind up with an equity stake in the case of a "triggering event." Terms of that contract weren’t disclosed.

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