Start-up unveils 3D printer that can build carbon fiber, Kevlar, fiberglass parts

Impossible Objects says its printer creates composite parts up to 100 times faster than conventional manufacturing processes

Start-up Impossible Objects on Tuesday unveiled its Model One 3D printer, which it claims is the first such printer that can build parts from composite materials including carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass.

The Northbrook, Ill.-based company said its technology can compete with injection molding "in terms of speed and price" to create production parts.

Because of the composite makeup, customers will be able to customize a part's properties, so parts can have heat and/or chemical resistant properties, the company said.

Impossible Objects 3D printer Impossible Objects

The cross section of an airfoil printed on the Model One composite 3D printer.

Along with the ability to print with non-traditional composite materials, Impossible Objects said its printer sports faster build speeds -- up to 100X faster -- than other additive manufacturing (3D printing) technologies, as well as traditional composite "lay-up" techniques. "Lay up" manufacturing involves placing sheets of woven fabrics, such as fiber glass, atop another in a mold, painting each successive sheet with resin to bond them together.

The Model One 3D printer, the company said, can make the same part for prototypes and mass production with the parts up to 10 times stronger than those created by current 3D printer technology.

"The development of an automated, low-cost composite additive manufacturing system could revolutionize the U.S. composite tool and composite end user parts industries," Lonnie Love, Group Leader of Automation, Robotics and Manufacturing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said in a statement. "Impossible Objects' technology has the potential to revolutionize this market."

Impossible Objects uses what it calls a composite-based additive manufacturing method (CBAM) that combines composite materials with Polyether ether ketone (PEEK) and other high-performance polymers to build the strong, yet lightweight parts.

Impossible Objects 3D printer Impossible Objects

A print job from the Model One 3D printer depicting the versatility of shapes and objects it can create.

The CBAM process uses conventional thermal inkjet heads to first "print" designs on sheets of composites, like carbon fiber, Kevlar or fiberglass. Each sheet is then flooded with a polymer powder, such as nylon or PEEK, causing the powder to stick where inkjet fluid has been deposited on the sheets. Excess powder is vacuumed off and the sheets are stacked, compressed and heated.

The polymer powder melts and bonds the sheets together. The un-coated fibers are then mechanically or chemically removed, and what remains "is an exceptionally durable, lightweight object that was previously impossible to make so quickly and inexpensively."

As with other additive manufacturing technologies, creating composite parts with the Model One 3D printer would eliminate the need for special tooling from third-party service companies. Making those tools can be time consuming and costly.

Todd Grimm, an additive manufacturing consultant and founder of T.A. Grimm & Associates, said Impossible Objects has been in the public eye for additive manufacturing for about three years, but has remained in "incubation mode."

Impossible Objects is now offering its additive manufacturing technology as a service, and the company expects to make its Model One printer generally available to the public by early 2018. Companies interested in piloting the technology can email Impossible Objects.

"I'm jaded," Grimm said. "I've been in the industry since 1990 and I've seen announcements where the technology never took off. With something like Impossible Objects, it has a lot of possibility, but I'm going to wait and see what actual users say about it."

Impossible Objects claims its technology is being piloted by Fortune 500 companies already, but only named one: Jabil, a maker of printed circuit boards.

Grimm, however, noted that Impossible Objects' chief commercial officer, Jeff DeGrange, is a former vice president at industrial 3D printer maker Stratasys and a former executive at Boeing. At the aircraft maker, DeGrange led the certification and qualification of flight hardware built with different additive manufacturing technologies for the F/A-18 Super Hornet and 787 aircraft programs and advanced manufacturing initiatives.

"I'd be shocked if one of the companies they're working with wasn't Boeing," Grimm said.

Boeing is already 3D printing technology to manufacture parts for its aircraft.

Last month, Boeing announced it had begun using at least four 3D-printed titanium parts to construct its 787 Dreamliner and may some day rely on as many as 1,000 parts created via additive manufacturing.

3D printed aircraft parts Norsk Titanium AS

One of four 3D printed titanium parts Boeing will be using in its 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

While other companies, such as Markforged, claim to have additive manufacturing technologies that use composite materials, those processes involve weaving fibers in with plastics. Impossible Objects, Grimm said, is the first to offer additive manufacturing that truly makes parts from composites.

"Others are working on it, but they have yet to release a commercial product," Grimm said, pointing to Detroit-based EnvisionTEC.

"Has Impossible Objects rocked our world? No," Grimm said. "But, they were first to come out with an alternative way to create composite parts, and composite parts for aerospace are highly prized. So, yes, they are poised to have significant impact on manufacturing."

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