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New Mind-Bending Technology Grows Parts from Pool of Liquid Plastic

Google takes a major plunge into the rapidly shifting world of 3D printing

It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. Perfectly structured, complex parts seem to magically appear from a pool of liquid in mere minutes.

Silicon Valley tech startup Carbon3D has been working under the radar for two years developing a new 3D printing process that eliminates the layering process of additive manufacturing by forming parts from a bath of liquid plastic.

Think Terminator 2 when the mercurial T-1000 robot takes form from a pool of liquid metal. It’s the same concept.

The technology is so eye-popping and jaw-dropping that Google just invested $100 million into Carbon3D, intrigued by the technology’s speed. With Google venturing into ambitious tech projects like its self-driving car, this new technology could help put its concept car on the manufacturing fast track.

That’s because the game-changing speed of the new machine could transform manufacturing. As Carbon3D CEO Joseph DeSimone pointed out in a recent TED Talk, traditional 3D printing “takes forever.” But yawn-inducing wait times could become a thing of the past with the CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production) technology.

Slow speeds are the number one issue holding 3D printing back from being a viable manufacturing process. The next biggest issue is that the layering process of traditional 3D printing leaves a rough surface and leads to defects in mechanical properties.

“We are ‘growing’ things, so we eliminate the layers,” DeSimone said in the TED Talk. “[With CLIP] you don’t see surface structure; it’s molecularly smooth. These look like injected molded parts.”

The speed and surface smoothness makes this new CLIP technology a big, disruptive force in the 3D printing market. And along with Google, the new round of August 2015 funding includes other new investors Yuri Milner and Reinet Fund, among others. Before this latest round, Carbon3D raised about $40 million in funding from such investors as Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake Kraftwerk, and Northgate Capital last April. The Autodesk Spark Investment Fund’s $10 million investment in the company was converted to equity in August.

“Carbon3D’s printing technology is an order of magnitude faster than existing technologies,” said Andy Wheeler, general partner at Google Ventures, in a press release. “Carbon3D’s technology has the potential to dramatically expand the 3D printing market beyond where it stands today and reshape the manufacturing landscape.”

“Current 3D printing technology has failed to deliver on its promise to revolutionize manufacturing,” said DeSimone in a press release. “Our CLIP technology offers the game-changing speed, consistent mechanical properties, and choice of materials required for complex commercial quality parts.”

It was immediately clear that 3D printing would never be the same, said Carbon3D board member and Sequoia partner, Jim Goetz, in a statement, about when he first met with the Carbon3D team to learn about the technology. “If 3D printing hopes to break out of the prototyping niche it has been trapped in for decades, we need to find a disruptive technology that attacks the problem from a fresh perspective and addresses 3D printing’s fundamental weaknesses,” Goetz said.

The variety of plastic resins used in the Carbon3D machines can be mixed and tailored towards obtaining certain characteristics in a part, such scratch resistance or ability to withstand extreme heat for use in engines. CEO DeSimone, a former chemistry professor, said Carbon3D is using polymer chemistry to design new material configurations that can exhibit great elasticity and high strength-to-weight ratio.

Prototypes of the Carbon3D machine have been in use by about six companies for the past year, including Ford and Hollywood special effects company, Legacy Effects.

“CLIP is very different. The technology allows us to print parts much more quickly with a very high resolution and with better properties and a wider range of materials,” said Ellen Lee, team leader in additive manufacturing research at Ford, during a phone interview.

Current 3D printing that uses the layering approach is held back by the hours it takes to print a part, inherent weaker properties, and a smaller range of materials that must be purchased through the 3D printer manufacturer at a high price, Lee said.

Automakers need 3D printed parts that are durable enough to be used in production vehicles and which are able to withstand temperature extremes. When realizing its ambitions for 3D printing, nothing is more important to Ford than having the right materials which will ensure strength. Ford is impressed with Carbon3D’s commitment to polymer chemistry and to provide a technology that supports a broad range of materials. The CLIP technology has enabled Ford to expand its own materials research, and the additive manufacturing team at Ford has tested several new material configurations, including resins reinforced with nano-sized particles. This will lead to improved mechanical properties in parts and possibly lead to thermally and electrically conductive materials for future vehicle operations.

“Part of our partnership (with Carbon3D) is giving them feedback about what material properties and material performance we might need for certain applications,” Lee said. “The most interesting characteristic of what they have to offer is really the materials. And they’re tweaking their material range offerings to fit what we need. They have the ability to tailor some of the (material) properties and performance.”

Ford used the CLIP technology to grow elastomer grommets for the Ford Electric car and tested them against those made with traditional 3D printing methods. The Ford team produced the grommets using CLIP in less than a third of the time it takes with conventional 3D printers. And the material properties were much closer to the properties desired in a final production part.

“Our long-term goal is to move additive manufacturing more into the manufacturing world, rather than for just pure prototyping,” Lee said.

Carbon3D does not have a production machine yet for the CLIP technology, but it is busy soliciting feedback from the half dozen companies using the testing machine. In addition to materials feedback, Ford is suggesting that there be a larger machine available in the future.

“Their machine is relatively small,” Lee said. “Part of what we really want is for them to make it much larger. Automotive has a lot of very large parts we’re interested in making (with 3D printing) and a larger machine is something we are trying to make them understand that we want.”

Ford most recently used the CLIP technology to solve a major engineering issue that arose after placing a V8 engine into a new vehicle body design. The car design resulted in an unreachable oil filler cap because the engine sat lower and farther back under the hood. Using Carbon3D’s CLIP technology, Ford’s team was able to rapidly design, prototype, and manufacture an oil connector using rigid polyurethane and elastomer materials. This allowed them to access the oil fill tube without needing major redesigns to several of the car’s components.

With the traditional, layer-by-layer 3D printing approach, a laser prints each layer and turns off momentarily before the next layer can be printed, allowing more liquid to spread out. This process is inherently slow and weak points are also inherent between each layer.

But the CLIP technology offers a layerless approach where the machine is able to maintain a continuous liquid layer while it’s constantly curing it into a solid.

“So that makes the adhesion in between each layer really strong,” Lee said. “So if you want to print a part, you don’t have to worry about it being inherently weaker in one direction than another.”

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