At Formnext 2019 we found a company that can 3D print parts with 60% continuous carbon fiber content.
The company, 9T Labs of Zürich, is a startup only two years old. It’s a spin off of ETH Zürich, where plenty of interesting research takes place.
Carbon Fiber 3D Printing
Carbon fiber has been used in 3D printing for some time, although not in the most optimal manner. Most typically you will find a basic polymer filament mixed with chopped carbon fiber. These carbon fiber segments are quite short to ensure they can be extruded through a small hot end nozzle without clogging. While their short lengths remove much of the innate strength of long carbon fiber segments, the chopped fiber does somewhat strengthen resulting prints.
A very few companies have developed methods of including continuous carbon fiber in 3D prints, most notably Markforged and Anisoprint, with a few others coming up fast. However, these systems tend to embed only limited amounts of carbon fiber strands within a 3D print. Most of the continuous carbon fiber prints I’ve seen are similar to the above image, where a little bit of carbon fiber is added to dramatically strengthen the part.
But 9T Labs changes that entirely.
9T Labs Continuous Carbon Fiber
They have found a way to produce structural-quality 3D prints using continuous carbon fiber. Their parts can be 50-60% continuous carbon fiber when completed, with only 1% porosity.
This is a significant development, as these parts are unbelievably strong. When examining them, they appear to be as strong as metal, yet they weigh almost nothing. 9T Labs says they are in fact stronger than aluminum.
Their machine, which we did not see as it is still in development as a proof of concept, includes two nozzles for extruding polymers and one to deploy continuous carbon fiber. There doesn’t appear to be anything revolutionary in their 3D printing process, as the magic here occurs in post processing.
9T Labs’ Pressure Process
9T Labs’ post processing process is now patented and involves two stages. They apparently apply extreme pressure and temperatures to freshly completed 3D prints to squeeze out any trapped air. They did not say how much pressure, but I would hazard a guess it may have something to do with their company name: “9T” could mean “9 tonnes” of force?
One thing we noticed was that all sample parts exhibited by 9T Labs were flat, and I wondered whether that is a requirement of their post processing system. We were told the “pressure” was not gas pressure, but actual physical pressure, pushing the part into itself. It may be that 9T Labs technology can 3D print only flat objects.
Regardless, the parts are something to behold. They are astonishingly rigid, crisply defined and extraordinarily lightweight. 9T Labs says companies will have to rethink the concept of parts as a result of their technology: very strong lightweight parts could replace metal parts in some applications.
Can you buy a 9T Labs machine? Not yet, as the company is still in the very early stages of product development. They say they will first offer their technology as a service to the public, and then perhaps in mid-2020 they will offer a machine equipped with the technology.
We will definitely be watching this company closely as it develops and releases its products.
Via 9T Labs