One of the most undeniably forward-thinking companies in the 3D printing industry today is Carbon. Heralded as a smart company, Carbon is at the forefront of major initiatives in high-speed, serialized polymer 3D printing. One high-profile partnership — with leading German athletic apparel manufacturer adidas for the Futurecraft 4D shoe — is helping to reshape the way the industry perceives real-world mass customization relying on 3D printing for production, while additional collaborations and use cases further highlight the company’s dedication to forward-thinking innovation. At the heart of Carbon’s advances in terms of serialization, materials, hardware, and software is a dedicated team headquartered in Redwood City, California. I recently paid a visit to the company HQ for a tour and discussion with company Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Joseph DeSimone and Head of Global Communications Sarah Tolle.
Carbon emerged from stealth just over three years ago with its breakthrough (and seemingly breakneck) resin-based 3D printing technology, bringing to market its first 3D printer, the M1, just a year later. Followed by the SpeedCell system with the M2 3D printer and Smart Part Washer in 2017, the Carbon team has been deploying its trademark speed and focus to both product and product introduction. Speaking with DeSimone, it is easy to understand the mindset, as each advance is driven by a dedicated leader at the head of a driven and experienced team.
Immediately inside the door is a prominent screen displaying a live feed of the global network of installed Carbon 3D printers, including a ticker of parts made. In the millions, the ticker climbed steadily as we looked to the live feed, as DeSimone explained that the team’s “engineers are treasuring all this data” from the “constellations of printers working.” The nature of Carbon’s installations, provided on a subscription basis, allows for the company to stay closely connected with each and every customer; not too closely, though, as DeSimone made it a point to note that Carbon never receives or sees any design files, as these are all encrypted and IP kept confidential to the user. Through this network, though, Carbon’s engineers can keep tabs on operations, ensuring that the full installation base receives support and attention at all times.
Beyond the live feed was a prominent physical example of the company’s growth over the last several years, as two resin containers are housed just outside the doors to operations. A standard liter of material sits atop a massive bulk container, as in September Carbon introduced new quantities of its resins to keep in line with its focus on production-scale offerings.
“We came into this world thinking about prototyping and 800 mL containers,” DeSimone said with a smile and indicating how far the plan has advanced since those early days.
We next went into the facility proper, where employees share a large workspace devoid of barriers that might stand in the way of the free and regular exchange of ideas. DeSimone himself has a corner desk, but no office; “We work at the the intersection of disciplines, with no offices, no barriers,” he explained. “The workspace supports all that.”
A bank of about three dozen 3D printers supports Carbon’s ongoing work, as the chemical team work toward new resins, the engineering team work on hardware, the sales team have access, and service is available to help customers debug. We could also see the resin dispensing tool introduced with SpeedCell in the fall, the meter mix and dispense (MMD) system, which DeSimone described as being “key” to Carbon’s advances in bulk materials. In addition to supporting production-scale 3D printing, Carbon’s bulk offerings allow for cost reductions for customers as well as, significantly, packaging reduction, supporting the company’s strong stance toward environmental stewardship.
Many of the printers were running constantly, visible through windows that further add to the open feel of the operations. As we watched a technician move a build tray from a printer to the Smart Part Washer, DeSimone explained the company’s use of near-field tagging throughout its operations to track each part built. The data populates automatically, as each step is logged via the tag, tracing who worked with each build, which printer it was built on, which part washer was used, the serial number of each build, and additional information to ensure full traceability.
“A key part of how we do what we do is that each part has a near-field communication tag,” DeSimone told me as we walked the floor where every Carbon 3D printer is built.
Using the printer’s window as an example, he noted, “Every window is a unique piece of technology. With Internet of Things- and cloud-based precision across the distributed network, we can communicate with each part.”
This permeable window has seen several updates since its initial iteration. The part is now made in a restricted-access cleanroom to ensure that tight tolerances and exact specifications can be met; again, each is traceable through the entire process as Carbon tracks its part production closely. DeSimone underscored that along with the window, materials and software are the company’s “most important technologies.” Materials development is continuing apace, with Carbon working with third party companies for additional R&D in this area.
The software side offers a major point of differentiation for Carbon, as the company very regularly updates its offerings to provide improved capabilities for its installed base.
“Every six weeks, religiously, we send out updates for all our printers. We can do selective beta for new resins, where we can beta and test new products through a really close relationship with our partners, and update specific machines to support the new materials,” DeSimone explained.
“Like Tesla, every part of our system is controllable and measured; this allows us to debug remotely. There are not many hardware options out there like this. It allows us to constantly improve. Printing quality is now through the roof. Being connected lets us do that.”
The Tesla comparison is particularly on point, as many of the current employees at Carbon have roots at Tesla; advanced, integrated technology has long been a focus for much of the team.
A well-known part of the advances that Carbon is taking is its work with adidas. The partnership runs deep, and various sizes, shapes, and colors of 3D printed midsoles are seen throughout the HQ. One of the more interesting stops on our walkthrough was a room with the 3D printers Carbon developed specifically for use with adidas. The dedicated machines — not yet shown publicly, with official specs including “bigger” and “with more throughput” — take up a larger footprint than the M1 or M2 3D printers, all the better for scale production. An equal number of printers are on-site in Germany as well, as Carbon and adidas operate a three-way partnership with Oechsler, which has both M2 and adidas special 3D printers to continue to drive development and scale-up.
“As a polymer guy, what’s really cool for me is that this is digitally designed,” DeSimone said, holding a midsole and pointing out the different lattice structures as well as an integrated code. “This data matrix is something we heavily rely on — we recognize which printer, which lot of resin, which position on the platform, it was made with, and can ensure it was washed and cured properly. We know what size each one is, we know when it ships. We are measuring mechanical variances on each midsole, this is logged on every part, because every part is serialized. We call this the provenance of the part — we know its born-on date, its history, its mechanics.”
A large CT scanner from Nikon is located near the specialized 3D printers, as Carbon also brings in “a lot of metrology” to ensure that all specifications are met throughout. The attention to detail, traceability, and quality highlight the steps Carbon is taking to ensure that each step of its production process can meet the standards necessary for true scale manufacturing.
We rounded out our tour of the facility with a look into Carbon’s ‘vault’ where some of the earliest hardware iterations are housed. With early models designed for the desktop, and the first window just a piece of stretch film, it’s immediately easy to see that the company has come a long way. As we stood by the boxy first industrial designs, DeSimone noted that they had promised their Series B investors three things in development:
- A great team
- A better window
- Materials with the properties to make real parts, with dual-cure resins
Following the tour, DeSimone and I sat down for further discussion of the company’s strategies, latest software announcements, and continuing strategy. Stay tuned for a full interview!
Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your thoughts below.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]