Impossible Objects Launches Composite 3D Printer with Fortune 500 Customers
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 09, 2017 | 4196 views

Illinois-based Impossible Objects has been drumming up news ever since it began raising millions in funding in 2014. The firm garnered interest in what seemed like a unique approach to 3D printing with composite materials, but Impossible Objects had yet to actually release a product.

The Model One 3D printer from Impossible Objects, currently sold to pilot customers, is one of the few composite 3D printers on the market capable of using a wide variety of reinforcement materials. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)
The Model One 3D printer from Impossible Objects, currently sold to pilot customers, is one of the few composite 3D printers on the market capable of using a wide variety of reinforcement materials. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)

Now, after years of development, the company is ready to launch the pilot version of its first 3D printer, the Model One. Designed for high-volume composite manufacturing, the Model One pilot is already being deployed with select Fortune 500 customers, including global manufacturing company Jabil.

ENGINEERING.com spoke with Impossible Objects founder Robert Swartz and CEO Larry Kaplan to learn about the introduction of the company’s proprietary composite-based additive manufacturing (CBAM) method to the market.

How CBAM 3D Printing Works

CBAM can be described as almost a form of laminated object manufacturing, in which sheets of material are bound together and a three-dimensional object is cut from the stacked sheets. How it does this and what it can achieve, however, are entirely unique.

Sheets of fiber reinforcement material, such as carbon fiber, are passed beneath an inkjet printhead, which deposits an aqueous-based solution onto the sheet based on the individual layer images of a CAD file. The sheet is then flooded with a thermoplastic powder, which sticks to the solution. The excess powder is blown or vacuumed off. This is repeated layer-by-layer until the object is complete as a stack of sheets.

This stack is then compressed and placed into an oven, which fuses the thermoplastic powder, creating a fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composite. The print is then removed from the oven and any excess sheet material is removed via sandblasting or chemical bath.

The Bam! in CBAM

The material selection for CBAM is quite large, in terms of matrix and reinforcement materials. With Impossible Objects’ technology, users have the ability to combine carbon fiber, Kevlar or fiberglass reinforcement materials with polyether ether ketone (PEEK) and other high performance polymers.

This makes it possible to produce parts with a wide range of properties, including a high strength-to-weight ratio, heat and/or chemical resistance, stiffness and flexibility.

A 3D-printed femoral stem implant made with carbon fiber and PEEK. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)
A 3D-printed femoral stem implant made with carbon fiber and PEEK. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)

When the proper materials are combined, Impossible Objects’ Model One 3D printer can create parts up to 10 times stronger than other printers. The company’s CEO, Larry Kaplan, elaborated, “We’ve looked at the yield strength across a range of 3D printing technologies, such as [fused deposition modeling] FDM, [selective laser sintering] and [stereolithography]. With our carbon-nylon product, we’re up to 10 times stronger than those ranges of polymers printed by other methods. For some polymers, it’s a smaller multiple, but it’s always some multiple stronger.”

Currently, the system is capable of accommodating sheets between 12 in x 8 in and 12 in x 16 in, providing ample area on the X- and Y-axes. The Z-axis is listed as four inches tall, but this is not limited by the size of the machine itself and taller heights are possible. The Model One can achieve layer heights between 40 μm and 50 μm, depending on the fiber material used.

The Model One is also quite fast, with the potential of becoming even faster. “In terms of speed, it’s currently operating at about 45 cubic inches an hour and we expect to increase over time,” Kaplan said. “This is really the very beginning of what this machine can do from a speed perspective.”

The scalability of CBAM means that, as the company expands the size and speed of its technology, it could be possible to 3D print composite parts at speeds 100 times faster than existing methods. “The Model One is 10 times faster than FDM, for example, but as we scale the speed as we go, based on standard inkjet technologies that already exist, we can go ultimately to 400 to a couple of thousand cubic inches per hour,” Kaplan added.

Bringing CBAM to Market

The company is already delivering pilot versions of the Model One machine to large customers and seeing its technology used to create electronics products, medical devices, product enclosures, drones, aircraft and satellite parts, and tooling.

The first company to be publicly disclosed is Jabil, which has already begun using FDM from Ultimaker and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) from HP. Jabil plans to begin delivering its first end parts produced with MJF to customers this year. Given the Model One’s potential for mass manufacturing, it makes sense that Jabil would take on CBAM technology, as well.

A 3D-printed airfoil made with the CBAM process. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)
A 3D-printed airfoil made with the CBAM process. (Image courtesy of Impossible Objects.)

Unlike many 3D printing technologies, the Model One can be used for both prototyping and batch production, in that a one-off prototype can be used to iterate and validate a design before going on to produce batches of end parts.

In this way, the technology situates itself between conventional 3D printing and custom carbon fiber layup. Whereas carbon fiber layup is quite labor intensive and expensive, a process like CBAM can produce reinforced parts in a mostly automated fashion. These parts will also be much more geometrically complex than objects made with carbon fiber layup, but that are much stronger than traditional 3D-printed parts.

One specific market may be businesses that wish to produce PEEK-carbon fiber parts. As it stands, PEEK parts reinforced with carbon fiber are made with milling and hand layup. CBAM makes it possible to combine these two powerful materials in a mostly autonomous fashion.

“There are a lot of applications where people want high temperature performance and will use metal, but they don’t actually need all of the performance characteristics of the metal,” Impossible Objects founder Robert Swartz explained. “So, instead of metal, you can produce parts with PEEK that are lighter and have high temperature performance and chemical resistance that you can’t get any other way.”

“We see a lot of applications where businesses want PEEK carbon fiber parts using conventional techniques,” Swartz added. “For a number of reasons, those are very expensive and very slow. Our process allows you to do that and get much better mechanical properties which aren’t attainable with any other 3D printing method.”

The Model One will be publicly available for purchase in early 2018 at a price somewhere in the ballpark of $200,000, but companies can enter the pilot program earlier by contacting Impossible Objects via email.

To learn more about the technology, visit the company’s booth at RAPID 2017 or check out the website. You can read ENGINEERING.com’s previous interview with Impossible Objects founder Robert Swartz here.


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