Innovations in 3D printing

Ten miles north of Barcelona lies a centuries-old hotbed for ink technology. Founded in the 9th century, the Monastery of Sant Cugat ushered in Spain’s era of ink and scrolls. Nearby, a 21st century HP facility perfected the art through bus-sized printers capable of precisely depositing a picoliter of ink as massive reams of paper whizz by.

From this backdrop comes HP’s first 3D printer using Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), an industrial machine designed by an R&D facility best known for Large Format Printing. The 3D printer uses familiar inkjet technology, combined with a powder base material and, surprisingly, even paper, for use as a cleaning roll. More than mere vestiges, the reuse of such modules underlies how HP can leverage billions of dollars in previous R&D expense to bring economies of scale to its 3D printing supply chain.

MJF closely resembles selective laser sintering (SLS) printers sold by EOS and 3D Systems. Although all systems use a similar base material, a nylon powder, MJF additionally deposits a liquid plastic “fusing agent.” This key innovation allows the printer to deposit a fusing agent for each layer in one pass rather than slowly tracing each vector. Compared to SLS, MJF is 5X faster. The quality is presumed to be superior, as well, thanks to a detailing agent that enhances edge definition.

However, the full details are yet unknown, as two plastics must mix in a novel process to form a new microstructure. While less relevant to desktop 3D printing, such details are critical to automotive and aerospace manufacturing, where new processes must go through exhaustive quality assurance processes.

This interaction between fusing agent and base powder is the source of much excitement. HP promises that future 3D printers could address each voxel with a different combination of inks to vary material properties like color, conductivity, transparency and strength.

With an addressable resolution of 1.6 TeraVoxels (where voxel means “volumetric pixel”) in 3,072 cubic inches, the hardware addresses more voxels than current software can handle. A printer with three print heads and one byte to describe each voxel would require up to 12.8 terabytes per print. HP, incumbents or startups must build new software to power “digital materials” created by combining multiple plastics in varying ratios.

This interaction between fusing agent and base powder is the source of much excitement.

Five miles northwest of the HP Garage in Silicon Valley lies a building once used for a Google car collection. Today, the building brims with Carbon’s humming 3D printers and buzzing engineers. Just a little more than a year ago, the co-founder and CEO of Carbon, Joe DeSimone, unveiled the Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) process on-stage at TED and on the┬ácover of Science in a masterful product launch reminiscent of the late Steve Jobs.

With the launch of the Carbon M1, messaging that began as “What if 3D printing was 100x faster” became “Isomorphic parts with mechanical properties and surface finish like injection molded-plastics.” This reflects the dual reality that such speeds remain forward-looking and that throughput efficiency only matters to manufactures when parts have the necessary material properties.

While the CLIP process resembles the stereolithography (SLA) used by 3D Systems and Formlabs, Carbon touts that its parts have consistent material properties and maintain integrity when exposed to UV from the sun. These challenges constrain today’s SLA printers to prototyping and ancillary manufacturing usage. Carbon’s new materials and post-processing techniques promise to go beyond rapid prototyping and enable direct production of finished goods.

Like HP, Carbon created an open “App Store” for materials, with partners signed up to bring new chemistries to production. Existing plastics must be modified for compatibility with Carbon’s light- and oxygen-based process. Thus, a manufacturer must typically evaluate both a new manufacturing process and a new material for production. While some bleeding-edge users in automotive, medical and consumer goods have already begun production, many more incumbents will remain flat-footed, leaving room for startups to capture the emergent whitespace.

MJF and CLIP provide a jump over today’s manufacturing in a similar fashion to how Amazon Web Services disrupted the internet, enabling rapid iterations, horizontal scaling and separation of application from underlying infrastructure. With both machines starting at $120,000 — the base price for HP MJF and the cost of a three-year Carbon M1 lease — entrepreneurs can start a manufacturing business with greater capital efficiency than ever before. Software is eating the Factory.