Design2Part magazine (Mark Shortt/Editorial Director)
Two rapidly growing areas of manufacturing technology—additive manufacturing (AM) and thermoplastic composites—are being actively explored today by major players in the automotive, aerospace, aviation, and defense industries. Although many believe that 3D printing and composites technologies offer potential to solve enormous market needs, further market penetration hinges on their ability to overcome certain limitations, including relatively slow part production speeds.
To date, a proven method that combines the best of both technologies—by 3D printing strong, lightweight thermoplastic composite parts from carbon fiber or aramid (Kevlar) materials—has remained elusive. But a new technology known as Composite Based Additive Manufacturing (CBAM) does just that while also enabling faster production speed, according to its developers, who call it “the world’s first industrial 3D printer of fiber-reinforced laminated composite parts.”
The technology, developed by Northbrook, Illinois-based Impossible Objects, won the Rapid 2015 Outstanding Innovation Award at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ Rapid 2015 Conference & Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif., in May.
Composite Based Additive Manufacturing is unique for a number of reasons, including faster build speeds than other 3D printing processes and traditional composites manufacturing methods, according to Larry Kaplan, CEO of Impossible Objects. “CBAM is scalable to rival injection molding speeds, and that’s because we use standard thermal inkjet printing technology in our process, and so we can take advantage of the inkjet printing speeds that already exist,” Kaplan said during a short, ten-minute presentation on the technology at TechConnect World Innovation, a conference and exposition held in June in Washington, D.C.
Impossible Objects’ CBAM process also enables stronger parts, with mechanical properties up to 10 times greater than other 3D printed plastics, and a wider range of usable materials than other 3D printing processes, Kaplan continued. “Our starting materials are strong technical fabrics, like this carbon fiber cloth,” he said, pointing to a PowerPoint image on the screen. “We work not only with carbon fiber, but also fiberglass, Kevlar, and others, and we combine them with thermoplastics. We don’t use specially formulated thermoplastics, so just about any of the world’s off-the-shelf thermoplastics are available for use in our process.”
In a follow-up interview on the TechConnect expo floor, Kaplan described the CBAM process. “We start with fabrics of fiber materials, like carbon fiber, fiberglass, Kevlar, and we feed these fabrics into an inkjet printer, just like you would feed paper into an inkjet printer,” Kaplan told D2P. “We use the inkjet heads to print the different layers of the object onto the fabric. But in the inkjet head, it’s not a build material; it’s just a wetting agent. It’s low viscosity, so we can print at inkjet speeds.
“So we print all the layers of the object onto those sheets, and after we do that, we then dust the fabric with a thermoplastic powder. The powder sticks to where the sheet’s wet, and where it’s not wet, we blow it off, just like glue glitter when you were a kid. What you’re left with is thermoplastic adhered to the fabric in the shapes. We then stack up all of those layers, we heat it to the melting temperature of the polymer, and we press it down to the final part height. The polymer flows and fuses into a bonded object inside the stack of sheets.
“Then we remove the object by sand blasting, and the uncoated fibers shed right off. And that’s your final part. You can print a part like this in about six minutes,” said Kaplan, adding that the goal is to reduce that time to “under a minute.”
The market opportunity for strong, lightweight parts that can be rapidly produced “is enormous,” Kaplan said in his presentation. “In the automotive industry, lightweight parts are critical for strategies to increase fuel efficiency and meet increasingly stringent regulatory requirements. And in the aerospace industry, every pound of weight reduction on a spacecraft or rocket translates to $100,000 in cost savings.”
Impossible Objects currently provides a custom parts making service for paying customers in the aerospace, aviation, defense, automotive, medical, and athletic equipment markets. “We’re already shipping parts to Fortune 500 companies and others, for applications like drones, rockets, and trucks,” Kaplan continued. “Our go-to-market strategy is to continue to make and fulfill orders for custom parts, and then bring CBAM machines and materials to market for broad scale distribution.”
In the interview, Kaplan said that Impossible Objects was getting “very, very good feedback” from its customers. “They really like our strength-to-weight ratio properties. They like the ability to be able to use our parts for functional applications, and not just form and fit prototypes,” he said.
Founded in 2009 by inventor and businessman Robert Swartz, Impossible Objects (impossible-objects.com) is a venture backed company that closed a $2.8 million round of seed financing led by OCA Ventures last December.