Carbon’s Bold Mission to Finally Dematerialize Manufacturing

Technology has a funny habit: just when you think it can’t get better, it does. Take 3D printing. The ability for a machine to spit out soft material in a precise pattern that almost simultaneously hardens into an actual thing you can use is pretty incredible.

But there’s room for improvement. To date, low production speed, cost, and quality have limited 3D printing to prototyping. Now, additive manufacturing company Carbon aims to change all that with a fast 3D printer capable of printing finished products.

“[This is] what we’ve been dreaming of for 30 years—to go directly from design…to end use parts,” said Valerie Buckingham at Singularity University’s Exponential Manufacturing Summit in Boston last week. “That truly is what we consider the future of manufacturing.”

In short, for polymer parts, Carbon thinks 3D printing can finally break into mass manufacturing and bring all the benefits of going digital along with it.

Seeing their mind-bending technology in action is like something out of science fiction. Buckingham, who’s VP of Marketing at Carbon, described the tech as “a digital light projector shining through an oxygen-permeable optics layer a little bit like a contact lens, into a vat of UV-sensitive liquid programmable resin above.”

Translation: light is shined into a big bucket of ooze and makes something that’s then lifted out of the ooze to be used in our everyday lives.

Since coming out of stealth in 2015, Carbon has raised $221 million in venture capital, and the company just unveiled its SpeedCell system in March. The system features printers that have twice the build area of the previous model and can interface with robots.

Buckingham shared her observations about the current state of additive manufacturing and the emerging trends she thinks are most important for product companies. Below are three focal points Carbon has centered its technology and processes around, and they’re points we’ll likely see take root across the broader manufacturing spectrum in the months and years ahead.


Valerie Buckingham at Exponential Manufacturing.

Much faster and structurally stronger

Traditional 3D printing creates an object by depositing material layer by layer. But those same layers can cause mechanical weaknesses. Carbon’s layer-free method, said Buckingham, makes products that “have the same mechanical characteristics in all three dimensions and have great surface finish and resolution, the kind you’d expect from final quality polymer parts.”

3D printing can be thought of as essentially stacking many tiny parts of a material on top of itself then having those parts stick together. Carbon’s continuous liquid interface production technology—CLIP for short—is like taking one big chunk of that material and chiseling it into the same product.

“What’s really important,” Buckingham added, “is that we can do it incredibly quickly.” If you’ve ever watched a 3D printer do its thing, ‘fast’ is probably not a word you’d use to describe it. Carbon’s CEO says the CLIP method is 25 to 100 times faster than other industrial 3D printers.

Design-centric

In a comparison to how little the manufacturing sector has changed with digitization compared to most every other aspect of our lives, Buckingham noted that most production processes still involve design followed by prototyping and analog tooling. Carbon’s printers are one of the first technologies to change that and go directly from design to end use parts.

“One of the critical factors of this technology is that it really places the designer at the center. And it makes it possible for them to manifest their vision directly into the world without a lot of these constraints,” Buckingham said.

The company announced a partnership with Adidas just last month, in which Carbon’s technology will be used to make the mid-soles for a line of shoes called Futurecraft. The athletic wear company has expressed interest in ‘mass-customizing’ its shoes; a person who weighs 120 pounds and wears a size 9 needs a differently-built shoe than a 180-pound size 9.

“We’ve announced we’re going to be making 100,000 pairs of these shoes next year,” Buckingham said. “That’s a really big deal. That’s not a science project. That’s real final part production.”

Products used to be a physical, static output of a process. But additive technology is changing that, and leading companies are figuring out how to design for the process. By digitizing production, you cut out the middle man and go from design to end use is, Buckingham said.

Data-heavy

Finally, Buckingham emphasized the importance of provenance, or knowing exactly where a product comes from. This is crucial for highly-regulated industries like medical products. Parts created with additive technology are going to carry their born-on data with them, or, as Buckingham put it, “You’re going to be able to know when it was made, what the resin batch was, who the operator was, and how long it sat in the loading dock for.”

That means product failures won’t require mass recalls, where companies essentially guess what went wrong and end up wasting thousands of units of product so as to err on the side of playing it safe.

Embedded provenance data will let manufacturers pinpoint what went wrong, when, and where, making it easier to identify and solve the problem. “This is going to really change how we think about risk and data when it comes to physical goods,” Buckingham said.

Image Credit: Carbon/YouTube

Parasitic robot system for waypoint navigation of turtle

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9 Costs That Factor into Mass Manufacturing a Hardware Product

Without question, the costs for mass manufacturing are the most critical expenses when bringing a new hardware product to market.

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The Next Great Computer Interface Is Emerging—But It Doesn’t Have a Name Yet

Not long ago, your parents might’ve noticed a kid staring at a smartphone in their front yard. There wasn’t anything there. The kid was just…hanging out. What they didn’t know? Said kid was gazing through a digital window and seeing a mythical beast in their well-manicured roses.

This youngster was playing an augmented reality smartphone sensation called Pokémon Go that swept the online masses before fading back. But don’t confuse ephemerality for significance. Pokémon Go’s simple yet viral appeal suggests AR is going to be huge.

“The reason I’m inspired by this? I don’t think Pokemon Go is the pinnacle of AR. It’s kind of like the Solitaire for Windows 3. It’s a killer app at a certain time, a big milestone,” John Werner said at Singularity University’s Exponential Manufacturing Summit in Boston.


John Werner at Exponential Manufacturing in Boston.

Formerly an innovator at MIT Media Lab, Werner is now VP of strategic partnerships at augmented reality company Meta, the maker of a head-mounted AR display of the same name.

Since the beginning, Werner said, we’ve interacted with computers in a number of different ways, each iteration simplifying and improving on what came before it. First, it was punch cards. Later, it was the keyboard, mouse, and graphical user interface. More recently mobile technology brought us touchscreens.

What’s next?

Augmented reality is part of a new wave of tech that includes the related (and sometimes confused) fields of virtual reality and mixed reality. And the biggest names in the industry, from Google to Microsoft, are jumping into all of these areas for good reason. This is the birth of the next great computer interface, according to Werner. But it doesn’t actually have a name yet.

“If you look at the players that did well on the different waves, you see a number of them going into VR, AR, MR,” Werner said. “And I think those are just placeholders. We haven’t figured out what to really call this next wave of interacting with technology.”

Augmented reality isn’t all that new, Werner pointed out. We’ve been overlaying digital information on the real world for a while. Pilots use it to keep track of digital gauges, and NFL broadcasts include a digital yellow line on the field to show how far teams have to go for a first down.

But his vision goes far beyond Pokémon Go and yellow lines on a football field.

The rapidly falling cost and convergence of the underlying technologies are conspiring to make AR more usable, comfortable, and suitable for the mainstream. Most importantly, whereas AR is now largely constrained to 2D screens, it’s becoming immersive and wearable.

When it comes of age, Werner thinks it’ll merge with VR and change how we use computers.

“People see AR and VR as two separate things,” Werner said. “But eventually, it’s going to converge. And VR’s going to be a feature of this strip of glass where you can just dive into something [for full immersion] or you can pull back.”

You can see an early example of this futuristic vision by looking at his company’s Meta 2.

Werner described the device as a light AR headset with a fully immersive 90-degree field of view. They’re striving to make an operating system with “zero learning curve.” Expected applications include product design, as a new partnership with Dell, Nike, and Ultrahaptics shows off.

The Meta 2 isn’t the only head-mounted augmented reality device in the works. There’s also Microsoft’s HoloLens, which is being sold as a developer’s kit for $3,000. The much-hyped and secretive Magic Leap has attracted some $1.4 billion. Most of what’s known about the device is via insider accounts and rumor, and there’s no definite date for when it will go public.

But if Google Glass, an early step toward rudimentary augmented reality, taught us anything, it’s that it’s easy to get carried away and dream of the faraway potential of a new interface technology before it’s ready. This is standard hype-curve lore in technology.

Virtual reality, for example, is further along than augmented reality. There are now affordable, consumer VR devices on the market. But the excitement around VR has cooled. Next steps will be more practical as it matures and finds real market appeal.

This cycle applies to head-mounted augmented reality too. Only for AR, it’s earlier still.

The wearable AR devices we’ve seen are yet a bit clunky, and they aren’t likely to sweep away today’s computer interfaces right away. But they are light years beyond the earliest devices from decades ago. Werner noted how one of the first VR devices, called the Sword of Damocles, was so heavy it would kill the user should it, heaven forbid, come loose of its moorings.

Today, AR devices are light enough to wear on your head, without breaking it. And there are a few converging forces that Werner thinks will accelerate development in coming years. These include advanced voice recognition (think Amazon Echo and Google Now), real-time modeling of three-dimensional spaces (Google Tango), ever-faster connection speeds (5G), laser-based displays (instead of pixel-based screens), and AI.

The end result as Werner sees it is an experience more like interacting with the real world, in which our computers adapt to us, instead of the other way around.

The way our keyboards are arranged, he said, descends from movable type, a centuries-old technology. But this is how we type and tweet.

“We’re held hostage by this arrangement…Our eye can take in 10^8 bits per second of information, and yet this is how we’re communicating with technology.”

So, What Will We Call All This?

Turns out Werner isn’t the only one thinking about how AR and VR will merge. Google featured both technologies at its annual Google I/O developers conference last week.

In a blog post before the conference, head of Google VR Clay Bavor mused on how the two relate. He suggested AR and VR are points on a spectrum between the real and digital worlds. On one end, it’s all real, on the other it’s all virtual. And in between, it’s both.

He suggested a few names—computing with presence, physical computing, perceptual computing, mixed reality, and immersive reality—before landing on immersive computing. Of course, just because Google calls it immersive computing doesn’t mean the name will stick. Perhaps we’ll cycle through other options, or simply expand what we have to include the whole category.

What’s clear, Bavor writes, is that through history, computer interfaces have become more intuitive by removing layers of “abstraction.” As a result, they’ve become more accessible to more people doing more things. AR and VR will make the digital world more like the world we evolved to interact with. How long it will take isn’t clear, but the trend is.

“With immersive computing, instead of staring at screens or constantly checking our phones, we’ll hold our heads up to the real and virtual worlds around us,” Bavor writes. “You’ll have access to information in context, with computing woven seamlessly into your environment. It’s the inevitable next step in the arc of computing interfaces.”

Image Credit: Dell/YouTube

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This Week’s Awesome Stories From Around the Web (Through May 20)

ROBOTICS

San Francisco Considers Ban on Sidewalk Delivery Robots
Steven Musil | CNET
“San Francisco is considering legislation that would put the brakes on delivery robots rolling across the city’s sidewalks. The robots, once confined to sci-fi movies, have rolled into real-world testing. But they would be banned from San Francisco streets under legislation supervisor Norman Yee introduced on Tuesday. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he initially considered regulating the robots but soon concluded rules would be unenforceable.”

PRIVACY & SECURITY

A Massive Ransomware ‘Explosion’ Is Hitting Targets All Over the World
Joseph Cox | Motherboard
WannaCry acts like a typical piece of ransomware, locking down computers and demanding bitcoin in exchange for decrypting the files. But the speed at which WanaCrypt0r has spread is alarming. In a few hours, the malware had already infected victims in 11 countries, including Russia, Turkey, Germany, Vietnam, and the Philippines, according to MalwareHunterTeam.”

ENVIRONMENT

This Giant Smog Vacuum Cleaner in China Actually Works
Adele Peters | Fast Company
“When the tower—which was designed by artist Daan Roosegaarde in 2015, and temporarily installed in Beijing in 2016—sucks in surrounding air in an open field, the test found that it can capture 70% of PM10, tiny particles of pollution that can lodge in the lungs. When the filtered air is released, mixing with the dirty air around it, the result is air with an up to a 45% reduction in PM10 pollution within 20 meters of the tower.” 

SPACE

Made In Space Releases Video Renderings of Archinaut 3D Printer; CEO Andrew Rush Tells Us More About the Project
Clare Scott | 3D Print
“The two-year endeavor involves the construction of a massive 3D printer, equipped with a robotic arm, that is capable of fabricating structures in the middle of outer space. The Archinaut 3D printer is being developed by Made In Space, known for the production of the first 3D printer ever to go into space, as well as its follow-up, the Additive Manufacturing Facility, now in operation on the International Space Station.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Google Reveals a Powerful New AI Chip and Supercomputer
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“CEO Sundar Pichai announced a new computer processor designed to perform the kind of machine learning that has taken the industry by storm in recent years. The announcement reflects how rapidly artificial intelligence is transforming Google itself, and it is the surest sign yet that the company plans to lead the development of every relevant aspect of software and hardware.”

Image Source: Made In Space

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Simple techniques for weaving cable, kludging tools, handling small parts, and the importance of paint medium.

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