SolidWorks World 2015 showcasing upgrades to 3D printers

MarkForged has made some recent upgrades to its 3D printers, which can reinforce parts with carbon fibre, kevlar, and fibreglass. Brent Balinski spoke to founder and CEO Greg Mark.

3D printing with carbon fibre seems to be all the rage at the moment.

Local Motors made and drove a car last October at the International Manufacturing Technology Show, 3D printed (nearly entirely) out of ABS plastic reinforced with carbon fibre.

So apparently popular was LM’s Strati vehicle that last month it announced it’d be setting up two “micro-factories” to make versions of its car for consumers.

And last week Holland’s ColorFabb released a polymer feedstock for consumers containing “as much as 20 per cent carbon fiber.

Before these, and nearly exactly a year ago – at SolidWorks World San Diego – MarkForged gave us the world’s very first printer able to print in carbon fibre. (It is also able to reinforce parts with kevlar and fibreglass.)

Sure, additive manufacturing with carbon fibre is getting popular, says MarkForged’s founder and CEO Greg Mark, but what his company does deserves to be seen in a class of its own.

“There’s different types of composites, which is really, really important,” Mark told Manufacturers’ Monthly at SolidWorks World 2015.

The big difference is that others are using “chopped” carbon fibres in what they produce, where Mark’s 3D printing start-up produces parts with unbroken strands of the fibre (using its patented Composite Filament Fabrication technique).

“If you take finely chopped carbon, the thing you use for injection moulding, that’s like 20 to 30 per cent stronger,” he pointed out.

“And that would print in many printers. If you go to continuous strand carbon fibre, which is what we have, that’s five to ten times stronger.”

According to MarkForged, nylon (it uses this rather than ABS or PLA) reinforced in this way is 20 times stiffer than a regular ABS part, and has a higher strength/Weight ratio than 6061-T6 aluminium.

There were broad similarities in the continuous fibres’ properties and the strength wood is given by the direction of its grain.

“Actually my fiancée came up with a really great analogy,” he added. “She said yours is like wood, chopped carbon is like particle board, and the regular stuff is just like glue.”

MarkForged announced a couple of improvements to its product at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

These were a new cloud-based collaborative software, running on the Google Chrome browser, and the ability to embed functional electronics and metal parts within what’s printed.

Mark pointed to a quadcopter (pictured) as an example of what’s now possible.

“That top piece: all these nuts are embedded in it,” he said.

“So this is CAD, in SolidWorks, and where the nut is a cut/extrude pocket, and then at the end of the pocket we can pause: the printer will shoot you an email and say to go see your objects.

“You come and you put all the objects in there. You hit resume and you print on top of it.”

A possibility with the new ability to embed electronics is the addition of RFID tags, for example in tooling and fixtures – a major application for the company’s printers in these early days.

Composite, nylon-based tools are one area where the company offers a definite benefit, according to its CEO, with lighter items easier and less straining for a worker to use, and won’t scratch a surface. Being able to add RFID could improve things further.

According to Mark, automotive companies who got a look at the new embedding functionality “went nuts”.

“For example you’re at GM and you have these work cells. And the biggest use of plastic extrusion printing is tooling and fixtures,” he said.

“The issue is now you’ve got put that RFID tag in there, when you [replace] that tool with the next generation of tool – say this is an [obsolete] drill fixture – if you have an RFID tag in here, you can scan every cell, and make sure nobody’s using an old fixture.

“If you don’t, you’re going to end up putting holes in the wrong places. That and number two, you want to make sure that tool doesn’t walk out the door… The automotive guys loved that.”

Tooling in automotive plants has been a popular application so far, though – as with clients in any other sector – Mark won’t give details or names.

The only user he mentions by name is the company’s first one, NASA, and adds that numerous government labs have invested in MarkForged printers. Other customers range in industries from footwear to apparel to mechanical engineering.

He also declines to talk figures in the couple of months that the company has been shipping its printers, but says business has been good and the firm has “tripled its footprint” since launching.

For the moment, there is a need to explain “what will this do” to potential users, a challenge for any company with a novel technology. Mark noted that this was a difference in his business’s presence at this year’s event compared to last

“This year is more about applications and customer feedback,” he said.

“Last year we said ‘hey, you can print in carbon fibre, it’s amazing. And the question now is – what can I do with it?

Manufacturers’ Monthly is attending SolidWorks World 2015 as a guest of Dassault Systemes.

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