Author(s): Peter Bryer
The use of 3D printers is rapidly moving beyond simple prototyping. A new generation of printers is coming to market, enabling designers to print fully functional parts that would otherwise need to be machined. It's a very solid advancement.
CCS Insight felt that the most innovative 3D printing-related development shown at CES 2015 was a carbon fibre printer from Boston start-up MarkForged. The company has developed a 3D printer that adds carbon fibre, fibreglass and even Kevlar to the additive process for finished parts that are significantly stronger than the plastic-like polymers used by most printers (see International CES 2015: 3D Printing).
The company says that carbon fibre-based parts made with MarkForged's printers are 20 times stiffer and five times stronger than objects made from nylon plastic. This means that printouts have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than the aluminium used in current computer-aided manufacturing processes. CCS Insight was impressed with the results and believes that the long-term implications could be significant for product development and custom manufacturing.
The fibre-reinforced parts printed with MarkForged's $5500 Mark One felt as solid as steel-based products but were significantly lighter. The company also offers fibreglass and Kevlar filament for even greater strength.
MarkForged's product is among the first of a new generation of 3D printers using methods and materials capable of creating real-word, functional parts. Companies like Silicon Valley-based Arevo Labs and 3DXTech are developing printing methods that use carbon nanotubes — cylinder-shaped structures made from thin and extremely strong layers of carbon — for reinforcement.
CCS Insight believes that 3D printing is evolving from its hype phase into an era of "ultimate prototyping" with devices that can create strengthened prototypes as well as pieces robust enough to be used as finished products. This can be expected to enable greater product experimentation at lower costs as well as a new level of product customisation, and could affect the market for computerised milling machines. It's unlikely that 3D printing will soon replace mass production, but the industry is moving to make it real.