Toymaker Lego and the toolmaker Stanley Black and Decker have invested $19 million in Minnetonka-based Evolve Additive Solutions in the hopes of commercializing a faster 3-D printing robot that can mass-produce goods, officials announced Monday.
By making the equity investment, Lego Brand Group and Stanley join Eden Prairie-based Stratasys Ltd. in backing the startup technology.
Evolve had been a small research department within Stratasys until its 3-D printing capability advanced and the unit was spun off into a separate company in April.
"Evolve has entered an exciting new growth phase as we begin commercial development of our proprietary STEP technology," said Evolve CEO Steve Chillscyzn. "We are excited to have forged equity partnerships with world leading companies that recognize the production potential of STEP and are committed to working alongside Evolve to bring the technology to commercialization."
Evolve's machines are about the size of a VW bus, cost more than $500,000 and use a different 3-D printing technique than what is typically available in the marketplace today to manufacture industrial plastic parts, said Chief Financial Officer Shane Glenn.
The new technology uses digital scans, electrophotography and electrical charges to transform plastic powders into solid objects. It is estimated to be roughly 50 times faster than conventional 3-D printing technologies, Glenn said.
Evolve just delivered its first "significant" product shipment to a major but undisclosed customer this month. With that and the new cash infusion from investors, the company is set to take on and fill more orders, Glenn said.
If successful, production of the automated industrial manufacturing machines will be ramped up, commercialized and sold to large automakers, electrical device makers, and aerospace and consumer goods manufacturers, he said.
In addition to Lego, Stanley and Stratasys, a fourth firm also invested in Evolve, but declined to be named or to disclose the dollar amount pledged, officials said.
During the last 20 years, traditional 3-D printers have found a place inside most U.S. factories and have been hailed as a great way to cheaply manufacture product prototypes or tiny batches of products. However, critics long held that traditional 3-D printers were great robots but too slow to make products in the huge quantities required by industrial customers.
For example, most 3-D printing processes can make several parts over a few days, but couldn't make 1,000 parts in one day.
Chillscyzn said Evolve's new STEP approach has quickened the process and boasts "highly scalable" production capabilities.
"We have a material speed advantage," Glenn said. "It's safe to say that with [these new equity] investments, we feel we have the access to the necessary capital and the strategic expertise to take this company to the next level."
Lego business development head Per Hjuler said his company has been using additive manufacturing technology for 20 years, currently on prototype and other development stages. It was intrigued enough to invest in the burgeoning technology.
"Lego has invested in Evolve because it is an attractive investment opportunity which can benefit the Lego brand," Hjuler said. "We believe that the technology will become an even more important supplement to the current injection molding capabilities in the future. With Evolve, we have found a very competent partner in this area."
Evolve officials said they have spent a great deal of time making sure that the 3-D printed parts made by their machines can reliably make repeat parts that meet the strength, durability and temperature standards required by airplane and auto manufacturers and industrial engineers as well as toy and toolmakers.
Evolve is headquartered in Minnetonka and has a materials technology center in Rochester, N.Y.