Atoms, unlike bits, are hard to manipulate. Advances in how we rearrange them come slowly, but the payoff can be enormous.
Think new, never-before-seen products mass-produced from materials that once seemed exotic. Next to microchips, there is no more powerful unlocking technology than materials science.
Not long ago I held the product of such a potentially game-changing technology in my hands—a small, intricately detailed component for a valve. It looked like the shell of a nautilus from an alien planet. With its combination of lightness, strength and finish, the component felt very much like the future. And not just the next five years, but the next 50.
The object I held was unusual for two reasons: what it was made of, and how it was made.
It was made of carbon fiber, a man-made material used in airplanes, race cars and wind turbines that is stronger, ounce for ounce, than steel or aluminum. But it is expensive, and surprisingly labor intensive to make, requiring workers to cut, layer and mold sheets of plastic infused with carbon fiber—an oddly 18th century approach to making a 21st century material.
This carbon-fiber component had been made on a 3-D printer, a gadget more often associated with spitting out plastic novelties.
Marry those two technologies, and things get interesting. The all-electric BMW i3 has a carbon-fiber frame that extends its range by making it significantly lighter. Other possibilities include light but strong parts for drones and other aircraft, as well as replacing materials in many everyday objects—from furniture to machine tools—with carbon fiber.
“We give you the strength of metal for the cost of plastics,” says Greg Mark, chief executive of MarkForged Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company founded in 2013 that sells a machine that 3-D prints carbon-fiber composites.
The printer costs $5,000 and is being used by at least one automotive manufacturer to make parts for the machines that make cars, according to Mr. Mark. The company won’t say which, but Nissan Motor Co. is listed as a customer on MarkForged’s website. “We like to tell people we’re the parts behind the part,” says Mr. Mark.
Nissan didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Today, such parts are most often made by machinists using computerized mills to carve solid blocks of metal. (This also is, incidentally, how the body of Apple Inc.’s laptops is produced.)
By replacing milled metal parts with equally hard printed carbon fiber composite parts, MarkForged says it allows machinists and their factories to be more nimble—trying and discarding new ideas in days rather than weeks.
MarkForged’s 3-D printer works like a “traditional” 3-D printer in that it has two print heads, one that squirts plastic to build a part, and a second one that pushes out the carbon fiber to reinforce it, one layer at a time. Unlike traditional carbon fiber parts, there is no wasted material, says Mr. Mark.
A competing carbon-fiber 3D-printing technology is taking on a potentially bigger opportunity—the method for producing the overwhelming majority of plastic parts.
“Our long-term goal is to replace injection molding,” says Robert Swartz, founder and chief technical officer of Impossible Objects LLC, which recently unveiled a machine that can 3-D print composites with a huge variety of materials.
Chicago-based Impossible Objects’ process combines fabrics such as silk, polyester, Kevlar, cotton or carbon fiber with any 3-D printable plastic, including ones used for high-temperature applications.
Impossible Objects’ process differs from previous 3D-printing technologies. Instead of printing an object one layer atop the other, every layer of the object can be printed at once, in two dimensions, on a large sheet of fabric. The layers are then cut out and stacked one on top of the other, like a layer cake, and baked in an oven.
The machine operates on the same principles as an inkjet printer, spraying the plastic out of print heads as tiny droplets, at high speed. That means it eventually could be fast, says Mr. Swartz. The maturity of traditional 2-D printing, on which Mr. Swartz’s process is based, makes him think it could someday be relatively inexpensive.
Neither company will be raking in billions anytime soon. In the world of stuff, nothing moves quickly, in part because new manufacturing processes must be thoroughly vetted.
That said, Impossible Objects’ printer also could print big objects because some inkjet printers are as large as a bus. That could mean 3-D printing entire body panels for a car, for example, or maybe even the car itself. That would lead to vehicles substantially lighter than current models, which in turn could give electric cars unprecedented range.
Both men want to change how we make things—and the things we make.
The legions of cheap 3-D printers on the market now are mere toys compared with what is coming because they can’t produce parts strong enough for most uses. Once we can make things that are usable in the real world right at our desks—or at the nearest copy shop—3-D printing could have its “PC moment.”
Traditional manufacturing won’t go away—we still make glass in essentially the same way as the Romans, after all—but it may never be the same again.