Recently we have published several articles devoted to the CLIP technology, that is the super-fast printing of 3D models made with light-curing resins. Carbon3D – the developer of the technology, is likely to soon become a leading player in the field of 3D printing, both due to its unique solutions and its managerial staff and its hedge. The managers in the company consists of people with academic degrees and experience gained when working in major corporations – including Apple, Google and eBay. The company already has such investors as Google Ventures and Autodesk as well as the leading American investment funds, such as Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake Kraftwerk, Northgate Capital, Yuri Milner, Reinet Fund S.C.A., and F.I.S. However, the CLIP technology is still accompanied by various unanswered questions – either in context of the 3D printing process or the pricing and the availability the machines themselves…
Let us start with what we do know. CLIP consists in 3D printing with light-curing resins at an incredibly fast pace, which is 20 to 100 times faster than all other existing technologies available on the market. The models are printed layer by layer, however, it happens in a continuous manner, which is due to the use of oxygen as the inhibiting agent in the process. Thus, a purely mechanical process has been transformed into a photochemical one, which not only expedites the production of the model but also eliminates the layers. Some time ago, the CLIP technology was very thoroughly described here by Wojciech Adamczyk of Sygnis.
The things that we do not know…
- what will the 3D printer’s build size be?
- are there any technological limitations concerning the shape models?
- what about the post-processing of printed models?
- what resins will be available (types and colors)?
- what about the exposure of the resin to light?
- what is the cost of the 3D printer?
- when will it be available for sale?
Let us start with the technological issues. Speaking of the build size, the videos available on the Internet are not very helpful. What you can see there are models emerging from the resin, without any other frame of reference. We could deduce a little more from the photo taken by Legacy Effects, who had been testing the Carbon3D 3D printer for several months.
It can be seen there that the printer will have the build size of about 10 x 5 cm (± 2 cm), which the same as a typical DLP 3D printer, such as the ones manufactured by ENVISIONTEC. Or will the build size be larger? The matter was discussed on Fabbaloo, several months ago. The authors wondered about the possible limitations of the CLIP technology.
The standard process of 3D printing with light-curing resin in the DLP or the SLA technologies (curing the resin with a light projector or a laser) consists in that the build plate of the 3D printer is immersed in a container filled with resin and the light cures the layer after layer to build a 3D model. This process takes place “upside down”, that is the bottom of the model is always on top. There is, however, a catch! The cured resin, under the influence of light, adheres first to the build plate of the 3D printer, and then to the successive printed layers – however, it may also adhere at some points to the bottom of the container with the resin.
To avoid it, the container with the resin is tilted slightly, the resin is gently stirred and model is “detached” from the bottom of the container. This solution, however, has two drawbacks – first, it lengthens the 3D printing process, and second, it gradually degrades the container with the resin, because the molecules are torn off its surface, which eventually necessitates its replacement from time to time.
In the case of CLIP the process has been resolved in an ingenious way – using oxygen, which inhibits the curing of the resin, forms a fine protective layer at the bottom of the print, which consequently does not adhere to the bottom of the container. This solution significantly precipitates the whole 3D printing process and is the essence of the technology.
When the print layer is hardened, the model is raised by a predetermined height so that the next layer of the resin can flow under it to be hardened.
But what about the time when the model has already filled a substantial part of the container? The resin may not be able to quickly fill the entire surface of the printed model, which would prolong the printing process and necessitate the use of a container much larger than the build plate.
Indeed, this can be seen in the promotional video with the Eiffel Tower. When printing large surfaces – the process is (relatively) slow. It accelerates only during the printing of the upper parts of the tower.
What does this mean? In order to print large models with a surface of 20 x 20 cm, for example, we will need a correspondingly larger resin container, which in turn results in a need using more material to flood it. Moreover, the models with a large block geometry will take much longer to print than, for example, the Eiffel Tower. It is also possible that not all 3D models are suitable for printing in this technology… They may be printed, but their 3D printing effectiveness may be lower than for example in the case of SLS, or… Multijet Fusion.
Since we are dealing with resins and the DLP technology, some postprocessing will be required, namely, some chemical cleansing of the completed prints. Here we could assume that it will be similar as in the related technologies, however,… we actually know nothing. Which brings us to another question, namely the type of resins.
The available promotional materials depict printouts made from the resins in various colors. The Eiffel tower is blue, the openwork sphere is red, the Legacy Effects girl model is gray, and the Ford model printouts are black and white. Recently there also have been news about “elastomeric” and “tough” materials. It probably might be assumed that the company will provide a wider range of materials – it remains unclear, however, whether they will also vary in their physical and chemical properties. Probably so, although now it is yet another unanswered question. Perhaps Carbon3D is preparing a surprise also in this matter? What is certain is that the resins used in CLIP must be dedicated and it is unlikely that any substitute will be used here (at least at first).
And speaking of the resins, what about the issue of the exposure to light? Since we are dealing with light-cured resins, they should be protected from daylight, in order not to become accidentally cured. This is why all these 3D printers have a special cover made of colored plastic (yellow, orange or red). Whereas the promotional videos show a completely open 3D printing process. I assume that this was done purely for marketing purposes, in order to best present the 3D printing process. If so, it would mean that the 3D printer is also equipped with some kind of protective chamber – and thus, eventually it will look completely different?
What do the 3D printers used by Ford and Legacy Effects look like, then?
Finally let us move on to what is most important – how much will it cost and when will it be available? At the start I need to sap the hopes of the people who believe that the CLIP technology will be cheap and widely available. In my opinion, it will be quite the opposite – the cost of the 3D printer, irrespective of its build size, will be, at best, similar to the prices of other professional 3D printers on the market.
Where did this conclusion come from?
The CLIP technology will be unrivaled in terms of quality and speed of 3D printing, and simultaneously it will be protected by patents. If a company needs to choose between purchasing the Carbon3D and a 3D printer working in the SLA technology from 3D Systems, the choice would be obvious. The only hope for 3D Systems would be the difference in the build sizes of the equipment. As for the prices, Carbon3D will be able to raise them without restriction. The businesses interested in buying the new machines, will do so regardless of whether they cost 100 thousand, half a million or a million… even if it would cost 2 million it would still find its customers.
Without any serious competition on the market, the interest of Carbon3D will be to keep the price of the device as high as possible, because it would sell anyway. Their 3D printer will never get to the consumer market and it will be dedicated only to professionals who, one way or another, will find the funds for its purchase. Let us not forget about consumables – namely, the resins. Their price also will be inflated by an adequate mark-up. This will not be cheap stuff…
Another scenario is also possible – although, indeed, rather unlikely (because of the persons who create Carbon3D and the involvement of corporations such as Google and Autodesk). What if some company decides to spend a lot of money and take over the exclusive rights to the technology?
We should also be cautious when considering the timing of Carbon3D printers launch on the market. The device is in the functional prototypes phase. The preparation to mass production only began this year. Now, the company is getting ready for a series of marketing and trade activities (conferences, seminars, fairs, exclusive showcases for potential customers), the start of the production cycle, establishing distribution channels, servicing and logistics.
It will all take at least a year, therefore, Carbon 3D will not be launched before 2017. And even that will probably not take place outside the USA. Only when sales reach a certain level, the company will be able to start thinking about opening regional offices in Europe and Asia. Whereas without those, the 3D printers’ servicing would prove to be somewhat problematic. It can therefore be safely assumed that the time when the CLIP technology really becomes widely available, will rather be 2018.