kv Blogs
 Kohli Ventures
14 April 2015

Material thinking: the potential of 3D printing

It is said that 3D printing has potential uses in many different fields, from the manufacturing of aeronautical parts to sensitive medical implants. Yet today, 3D printing is mostly used for building prototypes. Small 3D printers are available on the market for consumers to buy for only a few hundred dollars. But aside from building prototypes and personalised novelty items, the uses of 3D printing have thus far proved limited.

However, there is one company that is going to transform the industry with their new method of 3D printing. Carbon3D have developed a technique called continuous liquid interface production, or CLIP, which, amazingly, lifts printed objects gently out of a pool of liquid resin[1]. Carbon3D have created a system which is not only incredible to watch, but has the potential to revolutionise the way we utilise 3D printing in future manufacturing processes.

In traditional manufacturing methods, materials are moulded, pressed or lathed. 3D printing, as we know it, constructs objects by building layer upon layer of plastic or metal. This process can take a long time and produces a considerable amount of waste[2].Current methods of 3D printing also consume a lot more energy than traditional manufacturing systems. Although 3D printing has great potential – it could create products that are highly personalised, such as made-to-measure medical implants, like silicone heart valves[3] – it is not being used widely in industry.

This hesitation is in part due to regulatory concerns regarding the safety of 3D printed objects. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration has so far prevented 3D printed objects from being used in the construction of airplanes[4]. 3D printing builds objects that are fundamentally different from those made using traditional manufacturing methods, since only a small fraction of materials used in traditional manufacturing can be used by a 3D printer[5]. Consequently the strength and durability of a printed object becomes an unknown entity. A printed object does not have the same feel as moulded object, nor will it behave in the same way.

But the new printing method developed by Carbon3D, founded by Edward T. Samulski, Alex Ermoshkin and Joseph M. DeSimone, produces objects between 25 to 100 times faster than a typical 3D printing machine[6]. A 51mm diameter object takes CLIP only 6 ½ minutes to produce but takes older forms of 3D printing up to 11 ½ hours[7].

As well as increased printing speed, the CLIP method of printing creates very little waste material[8]. And the objects, which are described as grown rather than built, are far more durable and strong than the layered objects built by older 3D printers[9].In conventional 3D printing the results are infamously inconsistent, since the mechanical properties of the object vary depending on the direction the object was printed in: the layer-by-layer approach creates a slate-like structure that is only strong in one direction but fragile others. In contrast, CLIP objects are comparable to injection moulded parts, smooth on the outside and strong internally.

CLIP works by combining light, used to solidify the resin, and oxygen, which stops the resin from solidifying. At the bottom of the resin reservoir is an oxygen permeable window which leads to an oxygen rich “dead zone” at the bottom of the tank. The intricate shape that solidifies is manipulated by light projections through the permeable window. Since the liquid layer is always present beneath the slowly-forming object, there is no need to wait for new resin to flow in and the object can be pulled upwards steadily[10]. It is this process that makes CLIP grown objects so much stronger than 3D printed objects.

Indeed, Jonathan Rowley, of Digits2Widgets, a 3D printing company in London, said CLIPS’s strength factor was even more impressive than its speed:

“If you add the speed of this technology to the extra strength it provides it means you could produce parts that start to compete with traditional manufacturing. It’s probably something of a big deal[11].”

And it would be hard to disagree. Carbon3D have improved on 3D printing methods in almost every respect; their actions have the potential to bring 3D printing into the manufacturing arena as a very real means of production. Many are hesitant to use traditional 3D printed objects in safety-critical areas; 3D printed objects are typically only prototypes (the 3D printed gun that made global headlines could not have withstood the explosion if it had been actually fired)[12]. But CLIP grown objects are stronger, create almost no waste and are quick to produce. This is exactly the sort of innovative thinking that Kohli Ventures so admires and encourages. It is exciting to imagine how this innovative new technology will impact global manufacturing processes in the future.