3D printers, printing materials, and software
Sometimes it's all about speed. Can the deadline be met? Can it scale rapidly? Can you get it to me now? And this need for speed in the business realm has only accelerated with the internet and its hyperactive offspring, namely e-commerce and social media. Attention spans and patience have shortened. The expectation of instant gratification is now the norm. And when demands aren’t met -- as we see with the current supply chain woes -- the clamor from consumers is deafening.
Manufacturers are only too aware of this reality, of course. The ones who are thriving have identified ways to optimize output without sacrificing quality control. But there are some manufacturing sectors where accelerated production remains elusive -- 3D printing, for example.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the creation of objects via the ultra-thin layering of polymer or metallic materials. Things are thus fabricated by a digital "printing" process rather than through lathes, molds, or component assembly. While the procedure may strike some as futuristic, it has actually been around for several decades.
Techniques have been refined over the years that allow for the creation of a wide range of components and products, but one overriding factor has prevented 3D printing from massively disrupting the manufacturing sector: it's pretty darn slow. Creating an object by squirting material in layers measured in millimeters or microns takes time. A lot of time.
That's why 3D printing has long occupied a kind of artisanal niche. It was great for leisurely prototyping or small runs of specialty components, but it couldn't really go for volume on deadline. It couldn't scale to that transformative tipping point that turns manufacturing from one thing into another.
Israeli tech entrepreneur Reichental looked at that deficit and saw opportunity. A fast 3D printing system, he knew, would redefine the sector, and he co-founded a company -- Nexa3d -- to work to that end. Reichental explains that 3D printing hasn't been dragging its feet over the past 40 years; it just needed supporting technology to fulfill its promise.
"To give a historical context, the pioneers of this industry clearly understood its potential at an early stage," says Reichental, "but necessary enabling technology didn't exist back then. Today we have massive computing power, ubiquitous connectivity, machine learning, and complementary sensing technologies. All these technologies have finally allowed us to create truly fast 3D printing machines."
How fast? So fast that the company has waggishly dubbed them "time machines."
"We've consistently demonstrated that our machines are 20 times more productive than other machines in the marketplace," says Reichental. "It's comparable to the evolution of internet speeds. We've taken 3D printing from dial-up to broadband."
But it's not all about supporting technologies. Reichental and company have developed a couple of complementary processes that have allowed them to kick 3D printing up multiple notches. The first is a photochemical system that produces and flash cures resin layers at a highly elevated rate.
"The second is a sintering process involving liquid resins, powdered polymers, and multiple lasers that allow us to print very quickly," says Reichental.
These recent advances may finally deliver on 3D printing's decades-long promise: a profound reconfiguration of the manufacturing sector. And it's not just because it's an alternative means for making familiar items. Additive manufacturing accomplishes things beyond the scope of traditional industrial processes.
"There are certain geometries in traditional manufacturing that can't be achieved," observes Reichental. "But that's not a problem for 3D printing. It allows free-form geometries -- there are no penalties for complexity."
That means a complicated component can be created as a seamless whole rather than assembled from multiple pieces, says Reichental. That's not only a more elegant approach to manufacturing -- it creates products that are more reliable, given there are no potential weaknesses or flaws at assembly points.
But Nexa3D's mission extends beyond putting additive manufacturing's pedal to the metal -- or polymer. Reichental wants to change the essential way goods are produced, transported, and utilized. The primary reason? Climate change. The current system -- making a bunch of stuff, moving it to and from warehouses to customers, dealing with shortfalls or bloated inventories depending on market conditions -- is not only time consuming and a waste of worker hours, natural resources, and capital. It also puts a tremendous volume of planet-warming carbon into the air.
"We want to create a digital inventory of products that can be manufactured on demand," says Reichental, "and scaling and speeding 3D printing will make that possible. You can produce components only when needed, greatly reducing the energy and huge carbon footprints associated with manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping."
Challenges: "Growth in our business requires talent, and that can be hard to come by -- but we do it," Reichental says. "We've been blessed in that we've been able to fill 28 positions in the last few months. Another challenge is the business environment as we move forward. We have one of the best zip codes on Earth when it comes to building a high technology company, but we need to make things more business-friendly in California. I wouldn't say the regulations are inhibiting us exactly, but they sometimes make the path more difficult."
Opportunities: "Simply being located in California creates opportunity," says Reichental. "California is one of the top five economies in the world. We have a tremendous reservoir of skilled people, unparalleled connectivity, and a culture of entrepreneurship. We see ourselves expanding in multiple areas, including the automotive, healthcare, and aerospace sectors."
Needs: Reichental posits: "Capital or talent? We're well capitalized, but we could always use more capital from the right investors. I'd certainly put talent as a greater need. I am gratified that we're located in an area that supports a rich ecosystem of kindred companies. We're all learning and benefitting from each other."