The go-to platform for industrial-grade continuous carbon fibre 3D-printed composites

Nowadays, the comparably high costs associated with carbon fiber (CF) composite parts to its aluminium or steel contenders remain a constraining factor. A higher degree of freedom to optimize the part geometry and the fiber layup...
Mar 24, 2021

Nowadays, the comparably high costs associated with carbon fiber (CF) composite parts to its aluminium or steel contenders remain a constraining factor. A higher degree of freedom to optimize the part geometry and the fiber layup in combination with increased automation in manufacturing will reduce the current constraint. 3D printing, an additive manufacturing technology, is believed to deliver on those demands for manufacturing. 9T Labs’ radical all-in-one Red Series technology provides a fully integrated solution, starting from CAD design to final part. Further, it enables 3D printing of performance composites with high fiber volume content (>50%) materials, ensures part quality by introducing appropriate consolidations steps, and scales through parallelization of affordable printing units.


Yannick Wilemin: It's a pleasure being here today. I will share about our development of the last three years, which the vision is to be the go-to platform for industry great continuous carbon fiber 3D printed composites. So a few words about 9T Labs. Who is 9T Labs? It's a spin off of ETH Zurich. So it's a technical university here in Zurich, Switzerland. We have been founded in 2018, so it's a bit more than three years now. We have been funded last year at 5 million Swiss franc, and we are currently 26 people in the company. So what are 26 people doing in Zurich? So our aim is really... We have all the background in composites is to help manufacturing companies to manufacture high performance parts in a competitive way. So obviously, we are targeting aerospace med-tech, which I would say, are the two first markets for us. And then we look at premium automotive, general industry, sports, and leisure. I will show some application afterwards.

Yannick Wilemin: But first let's jumped into the two fields, which we try to merge, composites and 3D printing. So both of them have many challenges and opportunities and we just try to leverage that. So carbon fiber composites, they have outstanding properties. Some are well-known like lightweight things, strengths, you can control the thermal expansion depending on the layout of the fibers. You have quite some design freedom because we speak about anisotropic materials versus isotropic materials. Which may be less known there are X-ray transparent, really interesting for med-tech applications. If you look at some of plastics, what we are using, they are recyclable. They are the high shock absorption and so on. So it's really always about picking the proper properties for the application.

Yannick Wilemin: In general, the lightweight materials market is growing fast currently and carbon fiber composites are the most high-performing lightweight materials. So what is the growth driver here? It's mainly electrification and reduce emission topics. So you get lighter, you use less fuel and so on., Regarding properties compared to steel and minimal titanium, which most of the times are competitors in some markets, the tensile strengths. So it's really very interesting doubles in steel. But then there's one big challenge currently in composites is that small and thick parts, they remain challenging to produce because either they are very expensive or they are not really doable technically. So that we see there is a sweet spot. There often a key inflection point, which is meant to be around 20 pounds. So everything which is below is that it's very expensive to produce. And therefore, 80% of the small parts are metals.

Yannick Wilemin: And now let's look at 3D printing before merging both fields. So 3D printing, while as a market driver... So basically carbon fiber thermal plastics. Again, that's why we chose them. They're definitely a gross driver here because they are high performance, reduced costs, you can weld them, we will see that later on, and you can recycle them. Then, of course, very interesting with 3D printing compared to subtractive manufacturing, you can really reduce material waste because you can print near to end shape. Then, of course, you can do it for smaller and thick parts. So that was the dilemma I was speaking of before. And, of course, recycling circular materials in general, because of all the sustainability topics in many different fields nowadays.

Yannick Wilemin: You can consider there are three main markets for 3D printing. The first, one really well-known, established, is the prototyping market. Here, most of the big players in the industry have at least tried it, or are using it in a daily manner for prototyping, because first applications go back to the 1980s. Then there is this field, which is bigger, of the molds and tools. They're interesting in terms of lead times, supply chains. It's still developing fast now. The current penetration is very low, as you, see below 10%. that's since 1990s, roundabout. But where we want to go also at 9T Labs, that is really this end-use parts topic. So to move from prototyping one-offs to serial products. The market, of course is huge, and it's not about replacing existing processes. It's really an add-on, as you will see, it's about integrating 3D printing into complex process chains.

Yannick Wilemin: Here we are at the very beginning of the journey, of course, it started in 2000s, but still it's not very established and it's difficult to find out products which really are produced and serial parts based on 3D printing nowadays. So of course, for many businesses, the mindset is already there. So when you look at surveys, many companies are looking into additive manufacturing, how to integrate that into the manufacturing 4.0 topics. However, it's still a lot of educational. So to be done from the players here.

Yannick Wilemin: Currently this is a great overview from composite's worlds about the players of a 3D printing with continuous fiber, which is a very specific, small, niche field still. We see there is quite some players, I would say many of them are based in the U.S. Arrival, Continuous Composites, Markforged, which announce it would go public today. So interesting move. Desktop Metal has gone public a few months ago. It's a very exciting field to be in, very dynamic. We differentiate depending on the parts per years, so the volumes which can be produced, and the sizes of the geometry of the parts. But here, quite some challenges are faced when moving from prototyping to serial production. So the biggest challenges are the cost of material, because most of the business models are running on materials now. So it doesn't really scale. So the cost of hardware is also a topic, especially because the hardware gets obsolete pretty quickly, due to the fast development in this field. Technology is not really scalable. The quality of the parts is not sufficient to go into high performance applications. And often the business cases are not clear.

Yannick Wilemin: These were all topics and points we worked on to develop our own solution, which is really about merging carbon composites. So we want to print high performance materials, so stronger than steel materials and lighter also. And we want to use the thermal plastic advantages. So performance, the welding and the recycling. On the other side is 3D printing. What's the main advantage is really that the software enables higher performance parts and more complex parts designs. And the hardware will significantly lower production costs to enable small and sleeker parts, manufacturing, and last but not least, reduce waste. On the material side, how did we solve, or try to solve the cost challenge? Basically we print with two nozzles or two deposition feeds, let's say. One has a pure polymer filament. So that's what you see here on the left side, it comes from extrusion. It's a typical filament you will find on 3D printers and FDM 3D printers. And here we use industry qualities, we will go into PA12 systems, PEKK systems, PEEK, and so on.

Yannick Wilemin: On the other side, we need, of course, the partner. So always the same polymer, but with the continuous fiber. And here, to really go as low as possible with industrial materials in terms of costs, we have selected the tape route. So we actually buy tapes, slit them into one millimeter width, filaments, and before printing with them, we roll form this flat filaments into round section filaments. On the left side here, you see a flat filament of tape, which is great because they're very consistent, industrial grades, you can go up to 60% fiber volume contents of really structured high performance parts. But if you lay down those tapes into tight angles, sharp ranges, then you have an issue of fiber distortion. And to overcome that, we decided to basically thermally prepared those filaments and to change the shape into a round filament. And this round filaments is then pretty easy to go around tight angles.

Yannick Wilemin: So here you see what's are our capabilities in terms of printing height and width. So of course, when you are printing or when you're putting your filaments, while moving along the shape, you will press a little bit on them so they will, again, not be completely round that explains that they will be wider than high. So around 1.5mm wide, while being at 0.6mm height. Under ranges, without any fiber distortion, you can go easily at sharp 90 degrees angles, if not lower. So that's how our solution looks like. So it's really the entire process chain. And this is to be continued, of course, starting with the software, which is about optimizing the part design and validating the parts. I will come back to that visit in detail. After we print this part, that's when the material, as described, and we will get a pre-formed coming out of this printer just as parts coming out of a 3D printer. And to really go into serial production to bring higher performance properties, and also as a reproducibility.

Yannick Wilemin: Then we will add molding. So, of course, you need, again, tools. But that's not a big issue if you go for serial parts and you really get the consistency. So low porosity, good surface finish, precision, and tolerances. That's really about scaling. We speak about serial parts around hundreds to 10,000 parts per year, which is low volume for certain industries, but it's a sweet spot where you're not too squeezed into costs while being competitive versus benchmark solutions.

Yannick Wilemin: So here in detail, how does it work? Often we start in a small part segment with the steel parts. We have a certain volume where we can play around. You run the topology optimization, typically, to get a frame, a skeleton. Based on this skeleton, we will move into our software, which is a design software to really lay down the fibers where we need it for the load cases. Once we have done our layout of fibers, we will immediately plug that in into the simulation. So that, that is commercially available, FEA simulation and [inaudible 00:13:55] and so on where you can really test and validate the design. The outcome of the simulation is going back into the design and it iterates automatically, up to a certain point where you reached an optimal and these optimal parts will then be transformed into a G-code and sent to the printer. That's what I was describing. You're iterating, you do your layout of fiber, and you get your final part validated.

Yannick Wilemin: So you go to the printer, you have the preform coming out, you go to the consolidation module, the fusion module, and you have your final parts. All this is, of course, controlled into a central software so that we can merge product and process simulation. This is just an ongoing learning loop.

Yannick Wilemin: At the end, as an example, this is a helicopter door hinge. It's currently a steel alloy with specific maximum loads of 59 Newton to gram. We are able here, already with a black metal design, because we wanted just to try what happens if we just replicate the design. But when you look at the composite's optimized design, you're really reaching different levels. So here we can prove that there is a point because we are competitive on costs and we are lower in cost, definitely. And we are also better in performance. So production costs saving based on this technology is up to 60%, depending on the benchmark. It offers new, lightweight opportunities. So you can go into complex parts and you can substitute quite a lot of metal parts like brackets hinges, and so on. You can reduce the time-to-market because you start with certified materials. So you can just take off the shelves materials, which you already use currently. The process is working in a digital manner so it's very easy to trace data and parts. And last but not least, of course, you have a pretty clear manufacturing and recyclable materials.

Yannick Wilemin: So again, to show that these are the three pillars of our solution. Then a big question is why molding and additive manufacturing? Basically here, why molding? First of all, it's a very interesting technology when it's about having precision parts made in higher volumes. Here's one explanation, basically after it has been processed, after the 3D printing, you still see the layers on the outside. Of course, you can optimize that by changing the parameters, but more or less, you will have this kind of structures and you will have remaining porosity because of fibers being placed with polymer. After consolidation, as it's well known in the composite world, you really have a small surface and you are almost a porosity freezer. You're below one percent of what is the expectation.

Yannick Wilemin: In terms of tolerances? You can also check here pretty tight tolerances, which are depending on the [inaudible 00:17:51] , that's pretty easy. The surface is also pretty nice for industrial parts. If necessary, for more optical parts, you can do some specific post processing, of course. So here you go, two main criteria low void, high reproducibility for serial part production.

Yannick Wilemin: So what are the applications here? I told you once it's about substituting metal parts, but it's also about making better composite parts. So enabling composite parts in smaller complex shapes. So he asked some of the applications we are working on. So the aerospace door hinge I was already showing before, we are looking at certain medical fields because it's interesting for implants, but the long path to get certified. So in the meantime, we also work on surgical instruments. Medical aiming arms are very interesting, the challenge being sterilization cycles because you have to put them into an autoclave after each usage. And because of all these holes, which very tight intolerances, you don't allow any displacement over time, you need to put fibers if you want to avoid thermal elongation. Nowadays it's often milled out of a block, which is very material inefficient. And we can print that near to end shape, do some post-processing, and really realize this kind of tools by 3D printing. Automotive brackets, an interesting market, rather limited to premium for cost purposes now. And of course, also, luxury and sports fields like he has a watch case is interesting, of course, as a Swiss manufacturer, we have good access to this market and very interesting to learn about how to really process the strategies to reach this very tight tolerances, which I expected here in the final product.

Yannick Wilemin: That's our strategy, for example, for the helicopter door hinge. So at the end, we need five orientation in all directions in three directions, but we can only print 2D. So we have in, a design software, the possibility to split the end part into sub parts. Then two different layout strategies prints the parts individually, puts them together, they have to interlock mechanically so that you get the forces through the fibers so you avoid having the forces stuck into the resin, which would mean that's a part would not survive long. And that's the end, you do thermal plastic welding. And do you have this end part, which is really fulfilling all requirements?

Yannick Wilemin: So here in this case, we speak about a thousand parts per year. We could reduce production costs compared to the great aerospace grade steel by 50%. We can reduce, because of the weight, the CO2 emissions over lifetime by 71% for this specific part because it's 80% lighter than the steel grade. And here, because we often speak about mechanical properties or thermal properties, but we can also do some specific visual effects on the surface. So we can print the functional core and have a nice looking object on the surface by doing some 3D effects or integrating other fibers, for example. That's something which is important mostly in luxury and sports. I hope you enjoyed the presentation and really looking forward for your questions.

Stephen LaMarca: There we go. Yannick, thank you so much. That was awesome.

Yannick Wilemin: Hi Stephen. Hi Rebecca.

Stephen LaMarca: I feel like I've definitely seen... I'm a car guy and also a mechanical watch enthusiasts. So I feel like I've seen a lot of this technology and materials used in stuff like McLaren supercars and Gordon Murray automotive things, even going as far back as something like the McLaren F1. I feel like there's a lot of materials like this. Do you work with... I don't know if you can disclose this but have you worked with some of the high end watch companies like Hublot? I feel like I've also seen that material process used in Richard Mille. I don't know if I'm pronouncing that right.

Yannick Wilemin: Of course we have talked with them, we are currently not doing a specific project, but of course we have to demonstrate. Our technology is available for three months now in the market, it's a very beginning. At least I'll admit it is very interesting because they are really pushing the boundaries. I remember they hired this aerospace engineer from [inaudible 00:23:23] space seven years ago, and it took them five years to qualify this one piece of carbon they have now on the watch. So that's extreme, but it's really nice to work with these guys also because-

Stephen LaMarca: Right.

Yannick Wilemin: They're pushing the boundaries and it's all about pushing boundaries in engineering.

Stephen LaMarca: Right. Our first question from Drew Borders, are you also exploring CNC machining, both wet and dry, on any of your carbon fiber projects?

Yannick Wilemin: Yes. Basically we are always looking at the end solution and how to reach the end solution technically and economically. So subtractive is definitely not out because we cannot reach those tolerances in watchmaking, for example. So here it's really about how to print the best possible, let's say half product, semi-finished products to get the results at the end. The nice thing with 3D printing is, you can really select your material depending on the layout. So for the watch, for example, I was showing we are printing the watch case, and this is kind of... It's below a skin of pure plastic, so that we only mill on the plastic, we don't mill on the fibers. So you reduce time in milling, you reduce costs, of course, and you don't destroy your fibers at the surface.

Stephen LaMarca: I also think it's really cool that you touched on being able to print a surface design into your final part. So I feel like... Do you think there's any potential that some of the watch manufacturers, some of the Swiss watch manufacturers in the future could be... Instead of using a subtractive means to produce Geneva stripes, but could they be printing their Geneva stripes into their watches?

Yannick Wilemin: I would say probably the resolution is a big topic, but the resolution you can solve by using different kinds of filaments with lower toes. And enter now, I would say watchmaking is interesting, but in the same manner, I would say eyewear very interesting also. And in general, all premium automotive, which try to put this kind of parts inside the car, they're also looking into this direction. So yeah.

Stephen LaMarca: So I think you touched on this a little bit at the beginning, but how does a technology like this, the production technology compete and compare to something like fiber placement and fiber tape and toe placement technology?

Yannick Wilemin: Yeah, I would say first of all, fiber placement is, I would say, rather limited to bigger geometries.

Stephen LaMarca: Yeah.

Yannick Wilemin: And especially, we are looking at really small parts with a lot of angles and ranges, and there, you always have the fiber distortion topics. Of course you can overcome it by placing with certain angles around the hole, but it's still not the same then if you can print round fiber parts. So I would say it's complimentary because we see a lot of potential. Now I was speaking about standard own parts, which we would consolidate as such, but what about taking a preform and over injecting it because you can print very precise, high performance parts and inject them into bigger structures or over molds and whatsoever. So it's really about the entire part at the end of the entire assembly.

Stephen LaMarca: Right. And one more thing before I hand you off to Rebecca, because I know she probably has her mind racing.

Rebecca Kurfess: I got one or two questions.

Stephen LaMarca: One last thing is, one of the post processes after printing is throwing your part into that molding machine, is that sort of like, you used the term molding, but to me it kind of looked like cold-forging, your printed part. Is that kind of similar to how you're aligning all of those... or tightening up the layers of your printed part?

Yannick Wilemin: We are really using temperature and pressure so it's not cold per se because we need to reach some crystallization temperatures to get different layers together in bonding. Especially if we do multi-part assembly, we really need temperature here and we need to heat that up. But the goal is really to heat and cool down as fast as possible without creating stresses. But coming back to forging, our first customer is a French company called Setforge. So they come from metal forging and they decided, a few years ago, to just compliment the portfolio with composites. Probably says something about forging in this movement.

Stephen LaMarca: Gotcha.

Rebecca Kurfess: Yeah. I thought that process was really interesting because for metal 3D printing, you use hot isostatic pressure, right? To finish your parts.

Stephen LaMarca: Right.

Rebecca Kurfess: I think it's really exciting to use sort of a similar concept, but with the carbon fiber polymer parts to make them a higher quality. I had a question actually about the software side of it. Because that seemed like a really integral part of the process and I really appreciate that you have this optimization software, so you can fully take advantage of the capabilities of additive. On one of your slides, you mentioned isotropic topology optimization. And I was curious if that... This is a specific question, I was curious if you also took into account the anisotropic properties of carbon fiber. Because I think you could use those to your advantage, you're stronger in one way than another. But I was curious if your software had that capability?

Yannick Wilemin: The isotropic topology optimization, basically it's not integrated. So we take off the shelf software and you can run that on whatever software you already use. There is not a lot of anisotropic now. And it's also is the topic of the standard FEA simulation tools that not a lot now, which canreally plug in real anisotropy. So it's often tricking out isotropic models with some parameters. So yeah, still we use that. It gives you a certain frame and I would say, on these types of shapes and volumes, it's not too bad because we are not speaking about very big volumes. Of course we are looking at development on this software side and there's a lot which is happening.

Rebecca Kurfess: Okay. That makes sense. Yeah, I know that one was more specific. I did some of my master's work in carbon fiber ABS. So that one just piqued my interest a little bit. A broader question. I like that you can use this technology to print parts that you couldn't make with traditional manufacturing methods. I'm curious if there are any limitations on the flip side? So are there any design considerations that you have that perhaps one wouldn't have when making metal components using machining or casting or something like that?

Yannick Wilemin: Sure. Especially if you move into serial part production and you want to consolidate [inaudible 00:31:11] whatever post process you have to consider the post-process as a limitation already in the design. Because if you have, I would say, basically cavities are going to be tricky. So of course you can overcome that as usually with some loss core topics, but this is increasing, of course, the costs. So it's really a tough balance. So I would say if we see parts with cavities or overhangs, which are too pronounced where you would need support structure, that you can not consolidate with a support structure. All these challenges, I would say, not impossible, but say I know low-hanging fruits and there are so many low-hanging foods, we should really consider them first to develop the technology up to a certain maturity, and then we can go back into a more complex topics.

Rebecca Kurfess: Yeah. That makes sense.

Stephen LaMarca: It's really fascinating seeing all of the work being done with carbon fiber and other composites related to carbon fiber. Are there any other composites, for that matter being used? For example, one that I can think of is like Tegris. Are you guys really just focused on carbon composites or are there others?

Yannick Wilemin: Yes, we are basically focusing on reducing carbon footprint with carbon composites.

Stephen LaMarca: Nice.

Yannick Wilemin: Joke aside, I would say we are, of course, not agnostic to carbon fiber. Now it seems to be obvious because you are hitting into premium segment and that's where to start. We have done trials with glass fiber, of course, because it's reduced costs has really interesting properties also. And basically we see a lot of source bio fibers popping up in there in various markets, which are interesting to consider. So biopolymers, bio fibers would certainly be on the agenda to try because we work with bigger partners here on the chemical side, which are also eager to test their new formulations in the 3D printing market because it's low volume and interesting for marketing purposes also.

Stephen LaMarca: I actually have heard quite a bit about bio fibers being implemented more, even in the automotive sector. But Yannick, thank you so much. That was fascinating. It's always good to hear more about carbon fiber and get to talk watches a little bit, had to hold myself back.

Yannick Wilemin
Head of Marketing & Business Development
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