Feb 29, 2016 | By Alec
Ambition is rarely a bad thing, and it’s one of the main drivers behind the 3D printing revolution. But while most 3D printing technologies simply aim to give industry partners a more flexible, quicker and more accurate alternative for special or low-volume production, Impossible Objects is actually aiming for the crown. Though a young startup, they are seeking to take on mass production with their unique CBAM carbon fiber 3D printing process, and their founder and CTO has just said that they are aiming to become a rival of injection molding within the next few years.
That’s quite an ambitious statement, but it comes from an unusual startup. Founded by Robert Swartz, an entrepreneur and IP consultant for MIT Media Lab in Chicago, Impossible Objects has developed an unusual 3D printing process called CBAM that makes high quality parts from high strength materials such as carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass. In late 2014, that unusual 3D printing process was already seen as promising enough to let them raise $2.8 million in seed funding in a round led by Chicago-based OCA Ventures. Other investors in Impossible Objects included Armando Pauker, a partner at Apex Venture Partners in Chicago, and Len Wanger, managing partner at Deer Valley Ventures of Park City, Utah.
Now you might think: but surely pure carbon fiber isn’t 3D printable? And you’d be partially right. A man-made material that is stronger than steel or aluminum (ounce for ounce), it is currently extensively used to manufacture cars, airplanes, wind turbines and other high cost products. The problem with the material is that it is very labor-intensive to work with, and is often manually milled. While not 3D printable on your typical desktop 3D printer, a handful of professional 3D printing service providers have been successful with 3D printing carbon fiber composites, such as MarkForged.
In order to open up new applications for carbon fiber for everything from automobiles to consumer products, Impossible Objects has developed a unique and cost-effective approach to 3D printing carbon fiber and other specialty materials. The process consists of a rapid two step-processs of inkjetting followed by plastic powder deposition to create individual layers of plastic on separate sheets of carbon fiber (Kevlar, polyester, or fiberglass can also be used). Each sheet is then stacked up on top of one another and baked in a high-heat oven. What comes out is a compressed, consolidated stack, in which each layer of plastic is thoroughly fused with a layer of carbon fiber.
At this point, however, the 3D object is still surrounded by excess sheet material. To reveal it, the next step is to sandblast away the excess material—think of excavating dinosaur bones—leaving behind nothing but extremely strong, lightweight 3D printed parts in shapes impossible to create using traditional manufacturing techniques.
Though Impossible Objects' technology is still in its early stages, it has the potential to become very fast and cost effective, and can easily be scaled up for industrial applications. Rapidly 3D printing entire car doors rapidly suddenly becomes a possibility, as these CBAM-manufactured parts are far stronger than other 3D printing results. It’s potential is so great that founder and current CTO Swartz is very optimistic about what it can achieve. “Our long-term goal is to replace injection molding,” he tells the Wall Street Journal.
And it seems more than big talk. Last year, the company even appointed a new chief commercial officer that has the know-how and reputation to match their ambitions: Jeff DeGrange, former Stratasys Vice President. With more than 26 years of experience in the 3D printing industry and at Boeing, he is exactly the type of person that could realize Impossible Objects’ potential. “Impossible Objects’ CBAM technology is the most exciting recent breakthrough in additive manufacturing that I’ve seen, enabling functional parts of carbon fiber and other composites unlike anything else in the marketplace. I am excited to be a part of the team and to help lead the next evolution in the industry with a technology that makes parts faster, stronger and with a wider range of materials,” DeGrange said of the technology at the time of his appointment. Could this be the 3D printing technology that reaches the mainstream?
Posted in 3D Printer
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