The future of commercial 3-D printing could very well be taking shape in Northbrook.
The suburb is where the staff of Impossible Objects has been focused on advancing its composite-based additive manufacturing technology to become a new industry standard.
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The small company got a huge boost recently when its current prototype, the Model One 3-D printer, won the 2017 Innovation Award at the annual RAPID + TCT Conference. The annual conference is considered North America's pre-eminent event for discovery, innovation, and networking in 3-D manufacturing. Impossible Objects was among dozens of other 3-D printing companies and experts who showcased products and ideas.
For Impossible Objects Founder and Chairman Robert Swartz and CEO Lawrence Kaplan, the award is verification for years of research and study the company has put into developing technology that advances commercial 3-D printing.
"The award makes the process real for the industry and for our customers," Swartz said "They can now see the process work in that machine."
What makes the Model One unique is its process. Unlike conventional 3-D printers, the devices uses CAD technology and prints the item on sheets of material. A polymer powder is applied to the printed sheets, which are then stacked and heated to bond the sheets together. Once completed, the unbounded material is removed to create the part.
Swartz said the advantages to traditional 3-D printing is many, but above all, it allows a company to produce items much faster.
"It is a radically different method of printing 3-D objects," Swartz said, comparing the speed of the Model One to that of a newspaper printing press. "It has the capability of running thousands of sheets per hour and therefore processing parts at speeds that rival injection moldings. That's not possible with the existing technology."
Kaplan noted that the current speed is about 10 times faster than traditional 3-D printers.
The process also eliminates the need for tooling, Swartz said, which provides additional efficiencies to the process. Another key advantage is that the process allows a company to use stronger composite materials, like carbon fiber, Kevlar, and bonded glass fiber.
"Carbon fiber with PEEK thermoplastics is a highly desired composite combination in industries like aerospace and automotive," Kaplan said. "We are already seeing that today with our customers that parts made w/those materials and our technology are less expensive than making them traditionally." Swartz and Kaplan said a number of companies in various industries are taking notice. Jabil Circuits, a Florida-based global electronics manufacturer for a number of industries include health care, aerospace, automotive, computing and defense, has signed on to run a pilot program with Impossible Objects' printer and technology.
A number of other companies will also be a part of the program, they said.
"They will help in the design of the commercial product," Swartz said, noting the commercial printer, which will be made in the U.S., is expected to be available in 2018.
Swartz and Kaplan say it's taken about seven to eight years and three incarnations of a prototype to reach where they are now, but with the innovation award and pilot program in place, they see the company achieving its long term goal.
"We want to be a major supplier of 3-D printers to the world, as well as the materials used in those printers," Kaplan said.