Of the handful of companies in the composites 3D printing space, Impossible Objects may have one of the most interesting. This is in part due to high throughput, as well as wide variety of materials feasibly printable with the firm’s composite-based additive manufacturing (CBAM) process. Some of those materials may be realized due to a new partnership between Impossible Objects and Owens Corning (NYSE: OC). Through a joint development agreement, the two companies will develop new materials for CBAM.
CBAM is a unique technology in that it deposits powdered thermoplastic onto sheets of reinforcement fiber material before compressing the sheets and then fusing the polymer material by placing the object in a furnace. Once this is complete, the excess fiber sheets must be removed, leaving only a reinforced plastic part.
When Impossible Objects first came onto the scene, the firm boasted the ability of its process to combine a wide variety of polymers (e.g., polyethylene, nylon, PEEK) with a wide variety of reinforcement fibers (e.g., carbon fiber, fiber glass, polyester, polyvinyl alcohol, PLA, and even silk and cotton). However, upon release, the combinations so far available are carbon fiber or glass fiber with PEEK or nylon 12.
This portfolio is continually growing, however. In May 2019, the world’s largest chemical company, BASF, worked with the startup to 3D print carbon fiber-PA6 parts. That same year, TIGER Coatings teamed with Impossible Objects for the development of thermoset-based 3D printed composites. This new partnership with Owens Corning will further the possibilities even more.
In addition to its roofing and insulation products, Owens Corning may best be known for the Pink Panther mascot that appears in its ads. In this case, however, it’s the fiberglass that Impossible Objects is concerned with. With a 2017 revenue of $6.4 billion, the company is the world’s largest manufacturer of fiberglass composites, with about 30 facilities dedicated to this division around the world.
The products Owens Corning has developed for this segment are about as diverse as one can imagine. They include glass fibers for cement reinforcement, panels for freighter trucks, acoustic and thermal insulation, mats for lead-acid batteries, composite rebar, wind turbine blades and more. Essentially any project that could benefit from lighter-weight, durable materials could probably use the company’s fiberglass, possibly at a lower cost and with greater efficiency. By partnering with Owens Corning, Impossible Objects has potentially tapped into a huge market for 3D printed composite products.
“Owens Corning is committed to the development of composite materials and their applications,” said Dr. Chris Skinner, Vice President of Strategic Marketing, Composites, Owens Corning. “We seek to be at the forefront of new processing and new applications involving Composites. We have found the Impossible Objects technology and know-how potentially transformative for the conversion of some applications to composites. Because we believe it can be successful and deliver value to the market and our customers, we’ve entered into a joint agreement to support the development further.”
In addition to the wide potential material portfolio of the CBAM process, the technology is theoretically capable of very high throughput and the production of large objects, according to chairman and founder Robert Swartz. Swartz has previously said that he could imagine producing something as large as a car hood.
The company says that the partnership with Owens Corning will make it possible to scale the CBAM process so that it can compete with other high-volume production methods like injection molding. At the same time, it will be able to mass customize parts. Whether or not we’ll see fiberglass reinforced car hoods coming off of the next CBAM machine is another story, but we may be at the precipice of a composites production revolution, as Impossible Objects likes to claim. The interest of Owens Corning in the technology is certainly quite the validator.
“Our CBAM process is a revolution in 3D printing, with faster speeds, better material properties and wider material selection,” said Robert Swartz. “This collaboration with Owens Corning will allow us to quickly experiment with and refine new materials to significantly lower cost and bring unprecedented options for additive manufacturing.”
My biggest concern is the post-processing, which sounds like it requires extensive labor. As we’ve learned from more traditional 3D printing technologies, post-processing is key to industrialization. I’m not entirely sure how sandblasting or chemical dissolving of excess material for CBAM compares to the amount of work required for other 3D printing techniques, but that’s something that must be under consideration by the firm.
Meanwhile, Impossible Objects is getting its existing technology into the marketplace through the sale of machines, as well as a 3D printing service provided by Ricoh. It may take some time for manufacturers to truly understand the potential for composite 3D printing, but it feels like we just now be turning a corner.
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