Every so often there comes along a startup which somehow remains under the radar for one reason or another. This is especially true within the 3D printing space. Last month we saw a company called Carbon3D gain large-scale international media attention for a 3D printing process they say will be 25-100 times faster than what currently exists today. Through great marketing, and several entertaining videos that they released, they deservingly received a tremendous amount of attention by mainstream media.
Earlier this month, at MecklerMedia‘s Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York City, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Cole Nielsen, the founder of a startup called Orbital Composites. He was on hand to take part in the startup competition at the conference, as well as present to the world a 3D printing technology that he believes could drastically change the landscape within the manufacturing industry. This process promises to increase print speeds for FFF/FDM 3D printers by 100 times.
Orbital Composites doesn’t offer a complete 3D printing solution, but instead they offer up print heads that could revolutionize not only the speed at which typical 3D printers operate, but also the types of objects that they can print. Having been covering the 3D printing space for some time, this is one of the most incredible innovations I have seen to date–yet for some reason, Orbital Composites received absolutely no media attention after their presentation. Doesn’t seem right for a company that offers, in my opinion, more promise to the future of 3D printing than what even Carbon3D may be able to do.
Using several patent pending technologies, Orbital Composites’ print heads offer three new technologies, which have not been seen within the 3D printing space yet. These technologies are as follows:
- Coaxial Extrusion
- Capillary Injection Molding
- An Active Molding Roller
This to me was the most impressive of the three technologies, all of which were very notable in their own right. The Coaxial Extruder looks slightly similar to your traditional 3D print head, but at the same time is completely revolutionary. It allows for the printing of carbon fiber, as well as other materials such as plastic, wire, solder epoxies and much more.
Carbon fiber printing is nothing new. In fact, we’ve already seen a company called MarkForged debut a printer that can print objects with carbon fiber and other fibrous materials. However, Orbital Composites’ process is much different.
“The business models are very different,” Cole Nielsen told 3DPrint.com. “MarkForged makes a consumer 3D printer and proprietary filaments for their machine. They take advantage of the incredible strength of carbon fiber. Our goal at Orbital Composites is to make 3D printing 100x faster, for everybody. But, we aren’t a 3D printer company. Instead, like Intel, we only make the processor or the 3D printer toolhead. In addition, we will offer 3D printing toolheads for the CNC equipment already in the field. 3D printers, mills, lathes, car welding robot arms, and aircraft manufacturing automated fiber placement machines, we want to upgrade all of it.”
Quite a statement from a company that is currently looking for seed round funding. In talking with Nielsen I got the impression that he is quite the genius; a genius who may change the entire 3D printing landscape if provided with the funding to do so.
“Coaxial extrusion works with COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) 3DP plastic filaments, solder, epoxies, pastes, and any long strand that you can fit through the nozzle,” Nielsen explained to us. “We want to allow the COTS material library to be used. That way, our 3PD toolhead can be dovetailed into other manufacturing processes, like automated fiber placement. In addition, we will offer certified and premium materials. There will be medical and military standards for certified materials. Fiber optic cables exemplify a premium material.”
The technology works by using a single extruder that moves like a traditional FDM hotend. However, unlike other hotends, continuous carbon fibers (or other materials) are added directly to the core of the extruded material. This is done via the specially designed coaxial extruder which coats the strands of fiber in plastic prior to being extruded. It works in a similar manner to machines built to insulate bare wire. As plastic enters into the hotend, it melts and is forced to swirl around before being moved into an extruder tube where a nozzle adds a fiber directly into the center of the hot tube extrusion. The plastic and fiber bond together while exiting the nozzle and it is then cooled. The nozzle has the ability to extrude pure plastic like a normal extruder, as well as pure fiber or any mixture ratio of the two.
This is one way in which the printer can greatly reduce print times. Because of the enormous strength provided through printing carbon fiber, only 1-2 shells will be needed for an object which would normally require 5-10 on normal FDM-based 3D printers. In addition, Nielsen suggests that truly incredible objects such as high-performance car chassis could be printed by using this technology to extrude a larger number of shells.
CAPILLARY INJECTION METHOD
Capillary Injection is another method that Orbital Composites has integrated into their 3D print heads, a method which should make just about every FDM-based 3D printer manufacturer take a step back and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“If injection molding is the fastest manufacturing method, why not use it to 3D print? To accelerate the 3D printing process, we are stopping the printer in its tracks,” explained Nielsen. “Injection molding is used to rapidly fill-in thin-skin parts. Sparse infill patterns may be injected into, like bees selectively filling honeycomb cells. The injected epoxy is filled with fibers that are longer than the layer height, solving the delamination problem. Stiff, continuous fibers may be coaxially injected, providing a 3 axis weave in a 3 axis machine.”
It seems as though there is a strong disconnect between 3D printing and more traditional manufacturing means. Perhaps it stems from the fact that there is so much talk about the former eventually replacing the latter within industry. Regardless, Nielsen has found a method than combines the two in a way that speeds up 3D printing greatly and at the same time creates much stronger and more useful end products.
ACTIVE MOLDING ROLLER
One issue that everyone who owns or operates an FDM 3D printer is familiar with is the fact that 3D printed layers mean 3D printed weaknesses. Delamination is a problem we are all familiar with when it comes to 3D printed objects. Layers are extruded, one by one, and laid down on top of one another after the previous layer has already been cooled. This is fine for printing most prototypes, but when it comes to 3D printing end-use products, these weaknesses can cause of a lot of problems. Because of this, Orbital Composites has come up with quite the unique solution with their Active Molding Roller.
“FDM printers add heat to plastic in a precisely controlled manner, but no printers extract the heat from the print in a precisely controlled manner,” Nielsen explained to us. “This leads to differential cooling, heat build-up, warping, and delamination. Conversely, injection molded plastic is so dense because the plastic is precisely cooled and solidified under precisely controlled pressure. This is called holding pressure. FDM printers have zero holding pressure, leading to print voids and adhesion issues. The active molding tool is like a heavy, steam-rolling radiator. It is used to thermoform the extruded plastic bead and remove all voids from the fiber. Actively molded prints should meet aircraft composite fabrication requirements of a 99% void-free structure. In addition, the active molding tool allows for error detection and correction in real time. All while improving surface finish.”
THE FUTURE FOR ORBITAL COMPOSITES
Perhaps not as sexy of an innovation and not backed by a tremdous marketing team like the technology put forth by Carbon3D, Orbital Composites has come up with technology which has the potential to take FDM-based 3D printing to an entirely new level. I once believed that FDM would gradually fade from the 3D printing space as other technologies such as Stereolithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) take over. This is because, in its current state, the technology has many weaknesses that make SLS and SLA more attractive options, particularly for larger companies, and certainly for the production of end-use products. With this said, however, if Orbital Composites can find the funding they need in order to really begin developing their tremendous technology, FDM may actually be the printing process that grabs the majority of the 3D printing market in the years to come.
While this article focused mainly on the ability to 3D print super strong objects by embedding carbon fibers and other materials into them, that is just a small portion of what Orbital Composites is capable of doing. Printing with wires, solder, and other materials could open the door for 3D printing in just about every manufacturing sector.
“When American Airlines buys new airplanes, they look at only one number, fuel economy,” Nielsen explained. “And it is close, less than a 1% difference. Airbus and Boeing are spending tremendous amounts of money to upgrade their structural manufacturing practices from metal to carbon fiber reinforced composites. But aircraft wiring technology has not fundamentally changed in about 100 years. We have a tool that can turn any composite lay-up into a structural circuit board, saving weight, and potentially billions of dollars in fuel.
Orbital Composites is a group of aerospace engineers looking for a better way to do business. Our printer tools are optimized to fabricate better, cheaper drones, electric vehicles, and rockets. At a systems level, our first generation toolhead integrates the wire harness into a carbon fiber chassis as a structural component. Between these 2 subsystems, 40-80% of an electric drone can be printed as just one lightweight piece. We figure this should help ignite the robot revolution.”
Orbital Composites has no immediate plans to build their own 3D printer. They are focused on creating printer upgrades to OEM channels. They feel that they can add a tremendous value to machine shop owners, by creating heads that can be adapted to CNC machines. In the future though, Nielsen tells us that he hopes to offer an orbital multi-armed printer with multiple toolheads.
“The satellite-printer would decrease the cost of CubeSats by 75%, and shorten the operational lead time from 2 years of testing down to 2 months of design,” says Nielsen. “Currently, there are a few groups looking into orbital manufacturing, like Tethers Unlimited, Made in Space, and DARPA. We want to offer them printer upgrades.”
Without any doubt, this technology will be utilized. It’s just a question of whether it will be from Orbital Composites, via the funding they seek, or if it will be from another company that eventually purchases the rights to the technology from Nielsen and team. Combining the three technologies presented (Coaxial Extrusion, Capillary Injection Molding, and the Active Molding Roller) allows 3D printing to speed up by a factor of 100, but as seen above, this isn’t the only advantage it provides.
What do you think about the potential that Orbital Composites’ technology has for the future of 3D printing? Will it revolutionize the manufacturing industry? Will it take the 3D printing space to a level previously unthought of? Discuss in the Orbital Composites forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out Orbital Composites video of what this technology will be capable of doing, below: