Expert Interview: Carbon’s Co-Founder Philip DeSimone on Moving Towards High-Volume Production with 3D Printing
07 March 2019
Carbon has experienced a meteoric rise since it was founded in 2013. Over the last six years, the company’s proprietary Digital Light Synthesis™ (DLS) technology has been adopted by customers across a range of industries, from aerospace and automotive to consumer goods and medical. Fast forward to 2019, where the venture-backed, Silicon Valley-based company is now one of only three 3D printer manufacturers to have reached a valuation of over $1.7 billion.
Through its technology, Carbon has big plans to disrupt the way polymer parts are manufactured. And with high-profile clients on its roster, including the likes of adidas, Ford Motor Company and Lamborghini, the company looks set to follow through on its vision.
We were able to speak with Carbon’s Co-Founder and VP of Business Development, Philip DeSimone, to learn more about the company’s technology, growth strategy and mission.
Reinventing the way polymer parts are made
For DeSimone, Carbon’s mission is clear. “Our goal is to reinvent how polymer products are designed, engineered, manufactured and delivered,” he says. “Our proprietary Digital Light Synthesis technology is a key part of this.”
Digital Light Synthesis, or DLS for short, is a core element of Carbon’s value proposition. The technology was first unveiled publicly back in 2015, at a TED talk given by the company’s Co-Founder and CEO, Dr Joseph DeSimone. At the time, a key tenet of the talk was the improvement in speed afforded by the new technology.
So how exactly does the DLS process work?
In short, DLS is a 3D printing technology that fuses together light and oxygen to produce parts from a pool of programmable liquid resins.
The photochemical printing process works by projecting light through an oxygen permeable membrane into a vat of UV-curable liquid resin. A programmed thermal curing bath or oven is then used to set the mechanical properties of the part in order to strengthen it.
For customers, the technology offers a range of benefits, most notably the ability to 3D print high-performance, durable parts with an excellent surface finish and isotropic mechanical properties — all at a lower cost than traditional manufacturing techniques.
Of course, the rising demand for 3D printing is just one of the key indicators of the increasing digitisation of manufacturing. For DeSimone, the benefits of this are undeniable.
“Once a company goes digital, they can never go back,” he says firmly.
“3D printing is enabling manufacturers to unlock new business opportunities like mass customisation, on-demand inventory and previously impossible product designs. It fundamentally changes how designers and engineers think, how people collaborate and work and eliminates conventional constraints.”
Moving from prototyping to high-volume production
Shifting the conversation from rapid prototyping to production has been a key prerogative for the additive manufacturing industry in recent years.
As companies look to integrate 3D printing technologies into their production workflows, hardware manufacturers are faced with the task of developing machines that provide improved speed and greater part accuracy.
For some, Carbon is already proving to be among the forerunners in this regard. Just last month, the company unveiled its new L1 printer, marking the company’s first machine since its M2 printer, launched in 2017.
Billed as an ‘end-to-end manufacturing solution’, the L1 has been developed with high-volume manufacturing in mind (note that the ‘L’ stands for ‘large’). It offers a build area five times the size of its predecessor and is geared towards the production of multiple parts in a single run.
Equipment manufacturer, Riddell, has been announced as one of the first users of the machine. The company has already begun to use the L1 for its Diamond helmet platform: customised, 3D-printed helmet liners for NFL players.
The helmet liners were printed from a custom, highly damping elastomer produced by Carbon in the form of a lattice structure and have been designed to absorb the most impact whilst also providing comfort and a custom fit. The customised element means that the designs can be tailored to a player’s dimensions.
However, perhaps it’s Carbon’s high-publicised partnership with adidas that will truly bring the company’s high-volume manufacturing ambitions to fruition.
Looking to develop a midsole that could meet the performance demands of elite athletes, adidas required a means of manufacturing midsoles that could address the needs related to comfort, cushioning and movement. 3D printing — and Carbon’s DLS technology more specifically— proved to be the ideal solution.
Since announcing plans to 3D print midsoles for adidas’ Futurecraft 4D sneakers, the companies have committed to producing 100,000 pairs of shoes in 2019. According to DeSimone, both have a view to scaling this to produce millions of units over the next two years. Referring to the collaboration, he says: “This mass production is made possible by our L1 printer, designed for producing highly specialised products at scale.”
Indeed, this ramp up in production is indicative of the industry’s wider focus on 3D printing for high-volume manufacturing.
“At Carbon, we’ve brought to bare printers, materials, software and the design tools needed to deliver a full manufacturing facility solution. All of these things are needed to get across the chasm between prototyping and production.”
Carbon’s Growth Strategy
Delve further into Carbon’s growth and the importance of its partnerships becomes clear.
Over the past few years, the company has announced a number of high-profile collaborations which, notably, aren’t limited to any one sector or vertical.
So what is Carbon’s approach to partnerships and what role do they play in the company’s growth strategy?
“Partnerships are critical to our success and important in every aspect of our business,” says DeSimone, when asked. “Every time we sign a subscription agreement with a customer, we’re signing up for a partnership with that company for the length of the agreement. Carbon makes it possible for customers to produce at scale in ways that have never been done before and the only way to do that successfully is if we work side by side, day-in and day-out to make it a reality.”
Take its recent partnership with Ford Motor Company this past January as an example. At the Additive Manufacturing for Automotive Workshop at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the two companies showcased a series of automotive parts, manufactured using 3D printing. They included Heating, Ventilation and Cooling (HVAC) Lever Arm Service Parts for the Ford Focus, Ford F-150 Raptor Auxiliary Plugs and Ford Mustang GT500 Electric Parking Brake Brackets.
For Carbon, this milestone represents another step in its goal to provide engineering-grade parts that can be used in industrial, end-part applications. It also points to the enduring potential of 3D printing for the automotive sector.
“We believe there’s a huge opportunity for Carbon to partner with auto makers to make lighter cars and inventory on demand,” says DeSimone. “With Ford, we’ve already been able to achieve a 60 percent weight reduction for the Ford Mustang GT500 electric parking brake brackets, a 50 percent reduction in lead time, and a 90 percent reduction in cost for the Ford Focus HVAC lever arm.”
Of course, partnerships aren’t the only factor driving Carbon’s success – product positioning and meeting market demand are also key, as DeSimone points out. “I think the underlying principle driving our success is that we’ve positioned ourselves and engaged with partners as a ‘true solutions company.’”
Aside from its hardware developments, Carbon also has its eyes on materials development.
With what DeSimone refers to as a ‘multi-pronged approach’ to materials, Carbon invites both third-party development and validation as well as in-house material development.
“We believe that if a third party creates a differentiated material then it’s on us to validate it for the platform and offer it to customers in our Resin Store,” DeSimone explains. “We also have a team at Carbon that develops materials that no one has seen before in 3D printing. These materials are helping to create new opportunities for companies to make previously un-makeable products, such as the Futurecraft 4D midsole for adidas.”
Of course, the focus on materials has strategic implications, enabling Carbon to develop specialised materials tailored to the needs of various industries.
Like automotive. In its collaboration with Ford, the material Epoxy (EPX) 82 was used. The high-strength resin is a strong candidate for production applications, with properties like durability, lightweight, high-temperature resistance and resistance to high pressures.
The medical industry is another area Carbon has targeted for materials development. In September 2018, Carbon announced the first medical-grade material for its DLS technology: Medical Polyurethane 100 (MPU 100), designed to improve the quality of medical products and accelerate product development times.
The white polymer resin boasts a range of mechanical properties, including high strength, abrasion resistance, biocompatibility and sterilisability. The combination of these properties makes MPU 100 ideal for single-use medical devices, surgical tool handles and prosthetics — just to name a few applications.
What will the next five, ten years look like for the additive manufacturing industry? DeSimone gave his thoughts.
A key challenge will be moving 3D printing beyond primarily being a prototyping industry and education with regards to using 3D printing technologies to their full potential,” he says.
Despite that, however, DeSimone champions the future opportunities of the technology.
“I really do think you will see the impact of digital manufacturing as a solution for full-scale manufacturing. There’s a huge opportunity for digital manufacturing to make a dent in the $300 billion polymer injection moulding market. Carbon will have its role to play in demonstrating what’s possible when you combine innovations in software, hardware and materials to make the unmakeable.”
As for what’s next for Carbon? “We’re focused on growth and building a successful business,” says DeSimone. “We saw triple-digit growth in 2018 and we’re on track for triple digit growth again in 2019. We also have more exciting partnerships and applications in the works, which we’re very excited about.”
To learn more about Carbon, visit: https://www.carbon3d.com/
AMFG’s Expert Interviews series showcases innovative companies and individuals helping to shape the future of additive manufacturing. For more information about participating in the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.