Startup Car­bon takes 3D print­ing to the next level

Startup Car­bon has re­de­fined what 3D print­ers can do “I’m try­ing to find out how many they can let me have this year”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENT - −Jack Clark

In this gleam­ing lab in Red­wood City, Calif., the first thing you no­tice is the burnt smell in the air. The next thing you no­tice is the whirring noise, from the ma­chin­ery at the cen­ter of the lab clean­ing ob­jects pulled from hum­ming rows of 5-foot-long cylin­dri­cal print­ers. They’re turn­ing sludgy trays of gooey resin into caramel-col­ored shoe soles, valves, and pro­to­type knee re­place­ments.

This is Car­bon, the first com­pany in the $4 bil­lion 3D-print­ing in­dus­try to of­fer a se­ri­ous—and se­ri­ously fast— al­ter­na­tive to con­ven­tional in­jec­tion molds. Us­ing new ma­te­ri­als, hard­ware, and soft­ware, Car­bon’s printer, the M1, fires UV light at its syrupy resins to pro­duce pro­to­types and pro­duc­tion parts that can be more bouncy, stiff, tough, or heat-re­sis­tant than ri­val prod­ucts, print­ing at speeds com­peti­tors can’t match. Co-founder and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Joseph DeS­i­mone gets a lit­tle flow­ery when the knees come out. “We don’t print,” he says. “We grow.”

Car­bon has raised more than $140 mil­lion in ven­ture fund­ing, 10-fold the typ­i­cal 3D-print­ing suc­cess story, from the likes of Google Ven­tures and Se­quoia Cap­i­tal. In­stead of tar­get­ing home hob­by­ists like Mak­erBot

In­dus­tries and Form­labs do, Car­bon has teamed up with 15 big pay­ing cus­tomers, in­clud­ing John­son & John­son,

Ford, BMW, and East­man Ko­dak. Its pro­cesses haven’t been around long enough to demon­strate their dura­bil­ity, but early clients say they’re happy with the med­i­cal de­vices, auto parts, and other equip­ment they’ve printed with Car­bon’s ma­chines. As of April 1, Car­bon is mak­ing the M1 avail­able to other busi­nesses as part of a yearly sub­scrip­tion pro­gram.

The M1 uses a pro­jec­tor to pre­cisely shape the UV light it fo­cuses on poly­mer gunk, hard­en­ing it into solid ma­te­ri­als the ma­chine then ex­tracts from the liq­uid goo. The com­pany says its ap­proach is as much as 100 times faster than those used by ri­vals, de­pend­ing on the ob­ject’s com­plex­ity. DeS­i­mone says the soft­ware

This 5mm-thick, flex­i­ble polyurethane test part can with­stand ham­mer strikes with­out de­form­ing or break­ing

has a lot to do with that. Ev­ery day, each Car­bon printer gen­er­ates 1 mil­lion data points, pre­cisely track­ing the zaps of the UV light, the move­ment of the printed ob­ject, the rate of the print­ing, and so on. One cus­tomer was alerted to a rash of er­rors based on a change in room tem­per­a­ture.

Ja­son Lopes is the lead sys­tems en­gi­neer at spe­cial ef­fects stu­dio

Legacy Ef­fects, which uses 11 kinds of 3D print­ers. “By de­fault, I’m go­ing to the Car­bon ma­chine first,” he says. In three hours, the Car­bon prints body ar­mor props that take other ma­chines more than four times as long. Ellen Lee, Ford’s tech­ni­cal head of 3D-print­ing re­search, says Car­bon’s ad­van­tage is the di­ver­sity of its plas­tics, which al­lows her team to make an es­pe­cially wide range of mod­els and pro­to­types from a sin­gle printer.

Chip Gear, founder of an in­dus­trial man­u­fac­tur­ing firm called

Tech­nol­ogy House, has been us­ing a beta ver­sion of the Car­bon printer for six months. It has cut print­ing time for a ra­dio-fre­quency con­nec­tor from 12 hours to 40 min­utes, and print­ing eight at once takes just 43 min­utes to­tal, says Gear, adding that he bought a sec­ond printer in March and is talk­ing with his chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer about ways he can af­ford more. “I’m try­ing to find out how many they can let me have this year,” he says.

DeS­i­mone and Alex Er­moshkin, Car­bon’s co-founder and chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, be­gan de­vel­op­ing their printer tech­nol­ogy in 2013. DeS­i­mone is a chem­istry pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he and Er­moshkin worked to­gether. They no­ticed most 3D-print­ing com­pa­nies were try­ing to print items one layer at a time and bet they could im­prove the process with a con­tin­u­ous build­ing tech­nique. That year, Er­moshkin built the first pro­to­type printer with his teenage son. By the end of 2013, Se­quoia had led Car­bon’s first round of fund­ing, to­tal­ing $11 mil­lion.

Se­quoia part­ner Jim Goetz says the co-founders have laid to rest any wor­ries that Car­bon’s early pro­to­type wouldn’t trans­late into com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion. The next test will be get­ting a wider group of cus­tomers to pay for it. Car­bon charges $40,000 a year to rent one of its print­ers and get soft­ware up­dates, plus an in­stal­la­tion fee of $10,000 and $79 to $399 for ev­ery fifth of a gal­lon of liq­uid plas­tic. The com­pany says it isn’t prof­itable and de­clined to dis­close rev­enue. DeS­i­mone says he also wants to cre­ate an on­line mar­ket­place where other chemists can sell their own ma­te­ri­als for its print­ers.

In­dus­try an­a­lysts warn that Car­bon has yet to prove its light-forged plas­tics wear well. The prop­er­ties of the plas­tics “tend to de­grade over time, which is why they’re not used for the man­u­fac­tur­ing of most prod­ucts that use plas­tics,” says Terry Wohlers, pres­i­dent of con­sult­ing firm Wohlers As­so­ci­ates. Car­bon’s method of print­ing could hurt the sta­bil­ity and strength of its fi­nal prod­ucts, says Joe Kemp­ton, an an­a­lyst with Canalys.

Car­bon’s vice pres­i­dent for ma­te­ri­als, Ja­son Rol­land, says the com­pany runs in­dus­try-stan­dard tests and its ma­te­ri­als “look great out to at least six months.” DeS­i­mone says his unique pro­cesses help, not hurt, the fin­ished prod­uct, es­pe­cially the way Car­bon mixes its plas­tics from dis­tinct com­po­nents just be­fore print­ing. This makes them stronger, he says, be­cause they fin­ish bind­ing to­gether af­ter they’ve been hit with the UV light.

Early users Lopes and Gear say they haven’t had any trou­ble yet. Lopes says the ma­te­ri­als from Car­bon hold up “10 times bet­ter” than those from oth­ers. None of his cus­tomers, he says, has come back with any bro­ken parts.

The bot­tom line Car­bon has col­lected $140 mil­lion in three years to de­velop its superfast $40,000-ayear 3D printer.

“By de­fault, I’m go­ing to the Car­bon ma­chine first.” �Ja­son Lopes, lead sys­tems en­gi­neer at Legacy Ef­fects

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