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It should be clear by now that additive manufacturing technology, or 3D printing, has become a more accepted part of manufacturing processes.
The number of companies that are using it and the innovations to additive manufacturing technology itself have increased dramatically in the last few years. Issues like cost quality still keep additive manufacturing technology from scaling to true mass production levels, but advancements in the machines, materials and network systems are ensuring that it has a definite place in next-gen manufacturing.
One of these innovators is Carbon Inc., a four-year-old company based in Redwood City, Calif. The company has developed a new photochemical process that uses light and oxygen to produce objects from pools of liquid polymer. This opens new frontiers in product and part design, and enables faster printing, greater structural integrity and better consistency than conventional 3D printed parts, according to Valerie Buckingham, Carbon's vice president of marketing, who showed the Carbon M2 3D printer at the recent Rapid + TCT additive manufacturing conference.
The Carbon approach is derived from stereolithography (SL), a common additive manufacturing technology where parts are constructed layer by layer by shining a light into a pool of resin, hardening it into the desired shape, Buckingham explained. SL requires that the part be lifted a microscopic level off the build plate surface every time a layer is added, which means the process is generally slow, and the parts may have structural integrity issues if any of the layers are compromised.
Instead, Carbon uses a clear, contact lens-like window in the resin pool that's permeable by light, as is the SL method, but also permeable by oxygen, as the SL method is not. The result is a "carefully choreographed balance" between the light, which hardens the resin, and oxygen, which inhibits hardening, Buckingham said. Because of this, the part is created continually, without the need to add layers.
"The output of that is that we can create truly isotropic parts, meaning that they have the same characteristics on all three axes. And if you break one of our solid parts in half, it looks just like glass because there are no layers in that part," Buckingham said. "We can also go really fast with that system, and that's wonderful because we can make parts economically. That speed itself also opens up a whole universe of materials that have never been available for this type of printing before."
This combination of speed of production and the design freedom that additive manufacturing technology enables has led to real manufacturing opportunities. Buckingham explained that Carbon is currently working with athletic gear giant Adidas to use Carbon technology to produce lightweight and durable midsoles for its line of 4D athletic sneakers.
"This is a really big milestone for the additive manufacturing technology industry, as this is a commercial product that's available at scale," Buckingham said. "We'll make 100,000 of these shoes in 2018, but they make about 350 million pairs of shoes per year, so the sky's the limit for us, and we'll be in [the] millions in no time."
This type of scale won't happen without the growth of technology ecosystems that can support the additive manufacturing processes.
"Connecting into all these various ecosystems -- on the chemical side, on the hardware side, on the software side -- and all the ways that people are going to start participating in that digital additive ecosystem is starting to grow now," Buckingham said. "This has an effect on something like supply chain. There's going to be so much innovation there because, despite all of the promise and discussion, additive manufacturing technology is really in its infancy in terms of impacting manufacturing at scale for real, and I think that we're just starting to see early indications of that growth."
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