Startup Accelerator: 9T Labs Seeks to Make Carbon Fiber 3D Printing Go Industrial

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Startup Accelerator is an article series with a focus on new and exciting companies in the 3D printing space, in which speaks to startup leadership about their unique technologies and businesses. 

As explored in our series on the topic, carbon fiber 3D printing is experiencing an exciting period of growth. While there are a number of large-scale carbon fiber 3D printing systems in the works, desktop machines are much more common for prototyping.

Markforged can be said to be the original pioneer in the space, given its launch of such a 3D printer in 2014. More recently, however, several competitors have emerged that include Desktop Metal, Anisoprint, and 9T Labs. To learn more about this last firm’s technology, interviewed CEO Martin Eichenhofer.

According to SmarTech Analysis’s “3D Printed Composites Materials Markets – 2018”, 3D printed composites, heavily driven by carbon fiber 3D printing, is projected to represent a $10 billion revenue opportunity by 2028. In particular in the composites 3D printing market, SmarTech expects extrusion-based composite systems to grow at a rate of 14.15% CAGR from 2018 to 2028. This segment includes Markforged’s various offerings and Anisoprint’s Composer and Prom. It’s no surprise then that 9T Labs has earned $4.3 million in seed funding so far.

The Swiss company spun out of one of the most prestigious research universities globally, ETH Zurich, which is already well-known in the industry for its variety of additive projects. There, the founders of 9T Labs were exploring the possibility of 3D printing lightweight aerospace structures using a robotic arm. However, according to Eichenhofer, the market is currently more amenable to combining well-known conventional manufacturing methods with additive manufacturing and associated applications.

A 3D printed bracket reinforced with carbon fiber. Image courtesy of 9T Labs.

He explained the importance of focusing on applications with viable business cases. “We identified that end-use parts with the maximum size of a laptop have the strongest economics and are therefore targeted.” He added, “Many parts in focus cannot be produced with a robotic arm. It does not matter if you have three, five or 10 axes. Imagine the hinge bracket on our webpage [pictured above], there is no-way to produce this efficiently with a robotic arm. It needs our special approach of software+printing+consolidation. In those applications is the real market value.”

A third reason why the company is not pursuing robotic arms is that such systems are expensive and, thus, result in poor economics when balancing productivity and machine costs.

The Red Series, the first industrial solution released by 9T Labs, therefore, fits the scale necessary to make the economics of 3D printing carbon fiber for series production. It has a build area of 350mm x 270mm x 250mm. The hardware for the Red Series is made up of a build module, which performs fiber layup using a thermoplastic composite tape as feedstock, and a fusion module that uses rigid tooling to apply heat and pressure to compress the part.

The Red Series from 9T Labs. Image courtesy of 9T Labs.

The build process, then, is more closely akin to Desktop Metal’s micro automated fiber replacement, which swaps between one printhead to deposit thermoplastic filament and another to lay down tape pre-impregnated with reinforcement material, such as carbon fiber. The tape is heated past the melt temperature of the plastic before a roller presses the tape onto the printed part. The combination of heat, pressure and then the cooling of the printed part, allows the tape the part to fuse.

However, Desktop Metal’s method cannot make complex fiber layups or print along curved lines with its tape-laying approach. The Red Series is able to maintain high resolution along curved lines and, according to Eichenhofer, “offer the best material economics to our customers… required to build series production business cases.”

3D printed parts reinforced with carbon fiber. Image courtesy of 9T Labs.

Eichenhofer suggests that 9T Labs’ technology is more appropriate than existing desktop systems for series production of load carrying (structural) end-use parts in terms of industrial part quality, reproducibility, surface finish and economics. Though every company manufacturing carbon fiber 3D printing systems boast its own software, Eichenhofer points out that 9T Labs’ fibrify software is the only one that features built-in finite element analysis (FEA) for simulating part performance with a goal of digitally validating and optimizing parts before going into production

Achieving up to 60 percent fiber volume content and less than one percent voids in parts, the company’s technology may also be among the highest in terms of fiber volume and part quality. 9T can also qualify special customer requirements for new materials and maintains an open material philosophy.

“One of the hardest questions to answer for every solution provider is the choice of materials in the portfolio,” Eichenhofer said. “There is also no black-and-white answer. However, we strongly believe the capability to offer standard materials in our portfolio which have a proven track record for applications in the field (using other conventional technologies) is key to success. This is the case for commercial tape feedstock material. It also gives us the capability of efficiently developing special compositions with partners using the existing infrastructure and supply chain. For series production of structural parts, customers are not willing to make compromises on the right material for their specific application.”

9T is also taking the new hardware-as-a-service approach that is becoming more widespread in the industry, offering an end-to-end solution (including software and engineering) as a subscription with materials offered as a consumable on a pay-per-use basis.

So far, 9T Labs is already collaborating with several industrial partners and publicly communicated their contract with Setforge, the subsidiary of the large French Farinia manufacturing group of companies. Exact uses for the technology have not yet been disclosed, but 9T told

“Setforge will use the Red Series to set up a high-volume production solution for light and strong composite parts. Using 9T Labs’ composite engineering support, they will find and develop the right applications. The software makes the process of designing composite parts much more accessible to companies that have not been working with composites. This important step will allow them to substitute metals and scale the production of structural composites to thousands of pieces at a cost competitive structure. Setforge is a great example of an innovative parts manufacturing company creating new market opportunities by substituting metals with structural composites.”

What is important about 9T Labs and the growing niche of carbon fiber 3D printing is the impact that the technology will have on manufacturing composites as a whole. As discussed in our series on carbon fiber 3D printing, the conventional process is  time- and labor-intensive one that is typically reserved for specialty applications, namely aerospace, motorsports and high-end sports equipment. By automating the process of carbon fiber layup, it’s possible to reduce the cost of manufacturing carbon fiber reinforced parts. When asked what 9T brings to this process, Eichenhofer said:

“In general, new software capabilities (digital prototyping & optimized design), automation and integration. Key elements are design, process, machine and part data, which can be used for traceability, optimization and increased automation. Further, we can produce parts which are not possible from a technical or economical perspective using conventional technologies, opening up new applications and creating a completely new market (key word ‘metal substitution of smaller, complex and thick parts’).”

In turn, it’s possible that the production of carbon fiber reinforced parts will spread beyond the noted specialty industries to more general manufacturing fields, according to Eichenhofer.

“Increased usability and software capabilities reduce the barriers to design parts, increased automation and integration drive down costs to lower the barrier to change and accelerate adoption. This needs to be accompanied by driving down material cost, which the entire industry is working on,” Eichenhofer said.

While 9T Labs has certainly separated itself from the pack with a unique approach to carbon fiber 3D printing, it is not the only business in the segment. There already appears to be fierce competition, which means that we will see exciting developments emerge from this already interesting field.

Additionally, 9T Labs is offering a feasibility study, inviting companies to submit basic information about a given application and a .STEP file and their composites experts will evaluate the part to identify performance and cost potentials.

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