How Terminator 2 could wind up changing 3D printing as we know it

Ford is using a technology developed by startup Carbon3D that is dramatically faster than traditional 3D printing techniques

Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr

At its recent "Further with Ford" event, Ford Motor Co. announced that it would collaborate with 3D printing startup Carbon3D to produce high-quality automotive-grade parts. This would ordinarily be another (yawn) example of a company incorporating 3D technology into the manufacturing process — except for the fact that Carbon3D, which came out of stealth mode earlier this year, has come up with a way to make 3D printing 100 times faster than current speeds. Yes, that's right. A tiny startup purports to have solved one of manufacturers' greatest frustrations with 3D technology. As CEO Joseph DeSimone said earlier this year at a TED talk, "There are mushrooms that grow faster than 3D printed parts." DeSimone, to make a long story short, got the idea for the innovation from the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day. More on that in a moment.

Now, with Ford in the picture — actually it has been in the picture for at least a year developing significant gains in the manufacturing process — we can expect other manufacturers to clamor to use Carbon3D's new printers, when they are made available to the public next year. We can also expect other providers to race to catch up to what appears to be a disruptive development in 3D printing.

Introducing CLIP

Carbon3D's printing process is based on a technology called Continuous Liquid Interface Production, or CLIP. It uses photosensitive resins instead of the traditional mechanical approach.

As Carbon3D describes the process on its website, "it grows parts instead of printing them layer by layer."

A far more evocative description was provided by DeSimone earlier this year at TED2015, in March of this year. According to a transcript of his presentation:

Our approach is to use some standard knowledge in polymer chemistry to harness light and oxygen to grow parts continuously. Light and oxygen work in different ways. Light can take a resin and convert it to a solid, can convert a liquid to a solid. Oxygen inhibits that process. So light and oxygen are polar opposites from one another from a chemical point of view, and if we can control spatially the light and oxygen, we could control this process. And we refer to this as CLIP. [Continuous Liquid Interface Production.] It has three functional components. One, it has a reservoir that holds the puddle, just like the T-1000. At the bottom of the reservoir is a special window. I'll come back to that. In addition, it has a stage that will lower into the puddle and pull the object out of the liquid. The third component is a digital light projection system underneath the reservoir, illuminating with light in the ultraviolet region.

Now, the key is that this window in the bottom of this reservoir, it's a composite, it's a very special window. It's not only transparent to light but it's permeable to oxygen. It's got characteristics like a contact lens. So we can see how the process works. You can start to see that as you lower a stage in there, in a traditional process, with an oxygen-impermeable window, you make a two-dimensional pattern and you end up gluing that onto the window with a traditional window, and so in order to introduce the next layer, you have to separate it, introduce new resin, reposition it, and do this process over and over again. But with our very special window, what we're able to do is, with oxygen coming through the bottom as light hits it, that oxygen inhibits the reaction, and we form a dead zone. This dead zone is on the order of tens of microns thick, so that's two or three diameters of a red blood cell, right at the window interface that remains a liquid, and we pull this object up, and as we talked about in a Science paper, as we change the oxygen content, we can change the dead zone thickness. And so we have a number of key variables that we control: oxygen content, the light, the light intensity, the dose to cure, the viscosity, the geometry, and we use very sophisticated software to control this process.

Follow that? No, I didn’t either. Try this then. Picture that scene in Terminator 2, when the evil T-1000 arose out of a puddle in real time. That was DeSimone's inspiration.

I did catch, as most in the audience did, however, DeSimone's promise that the technique is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printers.

I would imagine that caught Ford's eye as well.

Ford as an early adopter

Ford's additive manufacturing research team joined Carbon3D's early access program sometime in 2014 after it saw a demonstration of CLIP. It has since been working with a pre-release version of Carbon3D’s first device.

Ford has already used the CLIP-based device to grow elastomer grommets for the Focus Electric and test them against those made by traditional 3D printing methods, according to Carbon3D.

"The soft but sturdy grommets are designed to protect wiring on the inside of the door from being damaged when the door opens and closes," according to Carbon3D's description of Ford's work in this area.

CLIP was able to produce the grommets in less than a third of the time and with material properties much closer to the final properties desired for the part. CLIP called it "a game-changing manufacturing time."

Ford no doubt agrees, although its focus is also on the bottom line. "If we can shave months off of production time and get a new model onto the market earlier, we can save millions," said Ellen Lee, team leader in additive manufacturing research at Ford.

Traditional 3D printing, it appears that it is judgment day. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Actually, the 3D printing industry makes advances on a regular basis.  Carbon3D's, though, should "speed up" the innovation. (Again.)

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