Exclusive: Origin Discusses Its Unique Mass 3D Printing Process

The CEO of stealth startup Origin goes into more detail about the company’s newly announced additive manufacturing technology.

One of the more exciting announcements from formnext 2018 was that of Origin, a San Francisco startup that came out of stealth mode with a new 3D printing process and a partnership with the world’s largest chemical company, BASF. Origin also announced $10 million in Series A funding led by DCM. 

A previously unpublished sneak peek of Origin’s unique 3D printing process. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

A previously unpublished sneak peek of Origin’s unique 3D printing process. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

So far, the company has remained somewhat private about its technology, but we spoke to Chris Prucha, founder and CEO of Origin, who was able to give us some exclusive insights into the mysterious process and the uniquely extensible hardware that powers it.

Origin’s Origins

If you’ve been following the 3D printing industry for a while, you may recognize Origin as the startup that used Autodesk Ember 3D printers to produce mass-customized near-field communication (NFC) tags for the shoe line of Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch. The project involved hacking the open-source digital light processing (DLP) 3D printers in such a way as to allow Origin’s team to pause the machines, insert the NFC chips, swap resin colors, and continue printing.

A multimaterial 3D-printed tag with embedded NFC chip. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

A multimaterial 3D-printed tag with embedded NFC chip. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

Just as Lynch was going Beast Mode on his apparel line, Origin was doing the same for mass 3D printing. With backgrounds in software engineering at Apple and Google X, respectively, Prucha and his cofounder Joel Ong began creating their own software stack for the Ember fleet.

“From day one, we started writing a cloud-based software platform solution for those Ember systems, and that’s how we mass-produced products for Beast Mode and a few other companies,” Prucha said. “We ultimately produced tens of thousands of end-use parts that went out to customers.”

The line of highly modified Ember 3D printers would ultimately serve as the basis for what would become Origin’s own mass 3D printing technology. Two immediate issues that had to be overcome were Ember’s petite build volume and the limited materials it could print with.

“We took everything we learned about the Ember. We hired many people from the Ember team as well when Autodesk shut the program down,” Prucha explained. “And we did a clean-sheet redesign of a mass production system in 2016.”

Origin’s Technology and Open Materials

Like DLP and stereolithography (SLA) systems, Origin’s process, dubbed programmable photopolymerization (P3), relies on photoreactive chemistries. Unlike those processes, P3 is oxygen free. 

A sample part showcasing different textures, 3D printed by Origin using BASF material. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

A sample part showcasing different textures, 3D printed by Origin using BASF material. (Image courtesy of Origin.)

Prucha explained that, by “oxygen-free,” he meant that oxygen is neither actively nor passively manipulated during the printing process, unlike other DLP- or SLA-based processes on the market. For instance, Carbon’s digital light synthesis uses an oxygen-permeable layer to speed up the printing process, actively manipulating the oxygen flow, and standard SLA technology permits oxygen to exist in the build area, a passive process.

“Our print process, depending on the chemistry, is oxygen tolerant, but doesn’t rely on oxygen at all,” Prucha said. “One of the exciting aspects of not having oxygen involved in the print process is that it opens up an entirely new world of chemistries that can be printed. It goes beyond the acrylate and epoxy type of chemistries being used.”

Many of the details about Origin’s technology are still under wraps, but Prucha was able to list polyolefins as an example of the polymers that can be printed with P3. Though not described as compatible with P3 by Prucha, one of the more well-known polyolefins is polypropylene, which is used to make milk jugs. 

P3 features an open materials model, in which material developers can create formulas specifically for the technology. As a software engineer, Prucha refers to the open materials as “material APIs” that companies or research labs, such as those at Origin partner Stanford University, can use to make their unique chemistries printable on the P3 system.

So far, Origin has already partnered with the largest chemical company in the world, BASF. P3 can print with photopolymers from BASF’s Ultracur3D line, and other partners and materials will be announced in 2019. 

“We have one customer in the automotive segment that has over 20,000 validated [variations of plastic formulas] for traditional manufacturing,” Prucha said. “I think out of necessity, you have to have an open materials platform to approach manufacturing. If we were to produce all the materials ourselves, or any other 3D printing company for that matter, producing 20,000 materials is going to be impossible. You need the power of an open marketplace.”

Extensible Hardware and Open Software

Beyond the wider range of materials possible with P3 is the extensible nature of the technology’s hardware and software. Origin’s 3D printer is modular, with each unit measuring a footprint of 400mm—large enough to print multiple size 14 midsoles.

Not only are the print chambers themselves modular, but other hardware components can be designed to be integrated within the printing system. This could include post-processing stations, in-situ quality assurance (QA) and automation components.

“Our hardware has a software-controlled magnetic kinematic connecting system that we’ve patented and that we plan to open up to other hardware companies to extend what the actual print platform can do from a hardware perspective,” Prucha said. “We think that more advanced material chemistries will require hardware changes and there will be an ecosystem of companies doing in-process QA and automation with robotics. It’s not a port—not just something to connect to the system. It’s basically a way that the system can be extended, including its print process.”

This is also made possible by open software APIs, which will allow software companies to create new technology for the 3D printing world. This could include methods for modifying the printing process workflow, managing a fleet of P3 systems, or managing those systems with a specific product.

“Our goal is to build the world’s best API for all aspects of manufacturing with our system, from the logistics fleet management side all the way down to customizing the additive process itself.” 

The Future of Origin: Demoing Live at RAPID 2019

After developing its first system two years ago, Origin began shipping it to materials companies for material development. This year, a second-generation system has been delivered to beta customers.

Customers include Tier 1 automotive customers, footwear brands and government groups aiming to simplify their supply chains. While Origin took on Ember team members after the group was dissolved by Autodesk, the startup is yet to make an announcement related to a software giant. However, Prucha said that there could be partnerships announced in the future.

One question raised in our interview was how social and environmental changes may affect the manufacturing industry, including P3, given the impact of energy usage and toxic chemistries on the ecosystem at large. The EU and India are already in the process of regulating single-use plastics and, if we don’t want to live in an increasingly uninhabitable world in 12 years, energy usage will need to be regulated as well.

Origin may have two advantages in this regard. When it comes to environmentally sustainable chemistries, an open materials philosophy will allow companies willing to evolve with our unfolding ecological crises to develop less toxic plastics for use with the P3 process. Additionally, Prucha said that not only does Origin itself have a small carbon footprint (the company’s offices are solar powered), but P3 is also less energy intensive than other technologies.

According to Prucha, one of its partners has developed a material that uses much less energy than with injection molding or selective laser sintering. Moreover, the startup is looking into materials that are inherently biodegradable.

Prucha also said that a single P3 system uses less energy than a desktop computer and that, because the process uses less post-processing than other technologies, there should be less energy and toxic materials used in post-processing than with those other technologies.

“We think that combination of lower energy consumption and being able to recycle, reuse or dispose of material in a sustainable way is really important.” Prucha added, “We’ve tried to build a post-process that almost eliminates any waste. The other interesting aspect of the material network is that we’ve been looking at ways to eliminate hazardous waste—something you get in additive manufacturing and manufacturing in general.”

Interested parties will be able to learn more about Origin’s unique philosophies and technologies at RAPID 2019, where the company will be showcasing P3 and releasing the production machine for general availability. By that time, the technology will be on its third iteration—fourth if you count the original Ember fleet.

You can stay tuned for Origin’s updates at the company website.