How Joe DeSimone is Changing 3-D Printing—Speaking of Chemistry Road Trip

Buckle up, everyone! Speaking of Chemistry
is taking a road trip through the Golden State to visit some of California’s most prominent
chemists. We’ll be making five stops from the Bay all the way down to San Diego. Our
journey begins in Silicon Valley with a startup company called Carbon that believes its chemistry-centric approach to 3-D printing will change the future of manufacturing. Joe DeSimone: When you look at 3-D printing, this industry is pretty small. It’s only about $4 billion industry. To put
that into context, I think the scented candle industry is a $9 billion industry. So it’s small. Matt: Joe DeSimone and his Carbon colleagues
are trying to change that. Carbon unveiled its first commercial 3-D printer in April
and performance is an emphasis with this machine. Conventional 3-D printers are great for creating
complex, one-of-a-kind pieces. But they print slowly and the polymers that they do print, nobody’s
talking about using them in cars or medical equipment. Most of these parts look and feel
like cheap plastic. Carbon is boosting both print speed and the
diversity of printable polymers using ultraviolet light and some crafty chemistry. Carbon’s
printer holds a pool of a liquid resin that cures or hardens into a solid polymer when
it’s exposed to ultraviolet light and just the right amount of oxygen. The team controls
how much oxygen gets into the pool with a permeable window underneath the resin. Near
the window, there’s too much oxygen for the polymer to cure. Carbon calls this region
the dead zone. But the oxygen level is just right for curing at the tippy top of the dead
zone. An automated platform pulls the cured polymer upward and fresh resin can easily
flow to the bottom of the part to keep curing going. The printer controls the shape of the
UV light pattern to control the shape of the object. Joe: I think of what we’re doing as basically
software controlled chemical reactions. Matt: The printer moves fast–up to 100 times
as fast as conventional 3-D printers–but speed is just part of Carbon’s innovation.
The team is printing polymers that have never been printed before. Their printed materials
behave a lot like polymers currently used in car parts, medical equipment, even sneakers.
Yeah, sneakers. To do this, Carbon formulates all of its own resins. Available UV-curable
polymers end up being hard and brittle. And ain’t nobody gonna dunk wearing brittle
Air Jordans. Jason Rolland: I like to joke around, we sort
of cheated by not using UV curable materials for the entire resin. Our resins are blends
of different chemistries, some that activate with UV and others that activate with heat
in a post-step. We’re able to lock the shape of the object with one set of chemistries and lock mechanical
or thermal properties with a secondary chemistry. You get out of this small box of highly crosslinked
acrylic-based materials or epoxy-based materials and into a much bigger sandbox. Matt: And each material has its own chemist
behind it. So how does Carbon combine all this new chemistry with brand new 3-D printing
hardware and software? We suspect the office puppies have something to do with that. But
more importantly–probably–chemists are working side-by-side with hardware and software engineers,
some of whom have some serious Silicon Valley credentials. Joe: EJ’s a mechanical engineer, Robin’s
a mechanical engineer. And Derek’s a mechanical engineer. Derek was actually in…. Battlebots.
He was the guy that was caught cheating and threw a net on somebody else. Jason: For me, it’s just thrilling to be sitting
next there to a Google software engineer. I mean, what chemist gets to work next to a Google software engineer
or a Tesla hardware engineer? And everybody’s interacting and learning from each other.
Really it has to be that way for it to work. We can’t get siloed in our own little world
and say here’s the chemistry, now you go make it work on the printer. Matt: There are existing technologies already
making polymer parts. The big kahuna is injection molding, which can create loads and loads
of the same thing at low cost. But Joe knows at least three scenarios where 3-D printing
beats injection molding. Joe: First and foremost, it’s about complexity.
First and foremost. You think about something like this, this lattice. You can’t injection
mold this. Matt: The second case is when you need just
one of something–say a medical implant or a prosthetic made for one specific person,
like this hand made possible by conventional 3-D printing and a volunteer group called
e-NABLE. You wouldn’t make that with injection molding. Joe: And the third thing I would point to
is the speed. The ability of a flexible factory that can knock out unique designs and turnover
instantly, you can’t do that with injection molding. Having real material properties printed
at game-changing speeds allows us to take this very small industry of 3-D printing and
move into 3-D manufacturing. Matt: Lots of people are excited about Carbon’s
potential, but not everyone is on the bandwagon. For more on that, check out this story. But
we’d be lying if we said we aren’t really hoping that 3-D printed shoes work out. Imagine:
fresh-to-death sneakers that are guaranteed to fit with the push of a button. Head to
the comments now and tell us about an area where you’re excited to see 3-D printing change
things up. Huge thanks to Joe, Jason, and everyone at
Carbon for showing us around. See you all next time when the road trip stops
at Stanford to check out Zhenan Bao’s lab and the electronic skins her team is developing.
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