This interview was originally published in the 3dpbm Advanced Materials AM Focus eBook 2020.
A relative newcomer in the additive manufacturing industry, Switzerland-based 9T Labs has ambitious goals. The company, which was founded in 2018 by ETH Zurich alums Martin Eichenhofer, Chester Houwink and Giovanni Cavolina, has developed a comprehensive solution for composite additive manufacturing and aims to make industrial carbon fiber composite manufacturing for serial part production more accessible.
Though today 9T Labs has an industrial solution available to enable carbon fiber composite AM, the company has more humble beginnings. As Eichenhofer told us, “Two years ago, we started by developing a retrofit kit for existing desktop 3D printers, like a Prusa or Ultimaker. Initially, we thought this was a good product which could be scaled, but we ran into limitations on the business and the technological side. That’s when we accelerated our plans to develop a complete solution, the Red Series, which is our first industrial product.”
The Red Series
The Red Series is 9T Labs’ recently launched carbon fiber composite additive manufacturing solution. Eichenhofer emphasizes that, unlike other composite 3D printing systems on the market, the Red Series is built for serial production of structural fiber composite parts, not prototyping or one-off parts.
The Red Series solution consists of three key elements: the fibrify software platform, the Build Module and the Fusion Module. The highly integrated solution gives users the tools to produce high quality composite parts with optimized fiber orientation and cost competitive pricing. Let’s take a closer look at each step.
First is the fibrify software platform, which itself consists of two parts: the Design Suite, which enables users to control fiber design and conduct simulations; and fibrify Production, which contains useful workflow and data management tools. The fibrify Design Suite allows users to “define optimal fiber designs” and benefit from integrated FEA simulation tools, resulting in part designs that are extremely lightweight and digitally validated.
“The way our software is designed gives the user a higher degree of freedom to position individual fibers—you really have the ability to get the most out of this high performance material,” Eichenhofer explains. “In combination with commercial FEA simulation software, it enables fully digital prototyping. You no longer have to do trial and error and produce the physical prototype parts.”
The Build Module enables the manufacturing of the designed part and is used in combination with the Fusion Module, a post-processing system that uses a combination of heat and pressure to enhance part quality and performance. The Build Module uses a proprietary omnidirectional filament placement (OFP) technology that can be likened to tape laying technologies with the resolution of extrusion based systems. A more detailed description of how it works is still under wraps.
In terms of materials, the Red Series is currently compatible with PA12 and PEKK matrix materials with AS4 continuous carbon fiber (up to a 60% fiber volume content). “We will gradually add materials to the portfolio,” adds Eichenhofer. “Most clients require carbon fiber, but it’s really not limited. We are also in a unique position in that we can develop new materials with our customers.”
One of the key factors that sets 9T Labs apart from its competition in the composite market is that it has intentionally overlooked prototyping applications; its technology is intended purely for end-use production of structural parts. In fact, the company sees itself more as a composite company than an additive manufacturing company.
“We realized that if you want to go into serious production of end-use and load carrying parts, the market requirements are different,” Eichenhofer elaborates. “We are serving a different market than Markforged and Desktop Metal. Material choice, final part quality and part costs are in focus.”
According to the company, its Red Series is capable of series production between 100 and 10,000 parts a year. Parts that are designed, manufactured and post-processed using the composite platform can reportedly achieve an average of 20% cost and 50% weight reduction compared to conventional processes. In fact, 9T Labs emphasizes that its technology stands out not only in comparison to traditional carbon fiber composite manufacturing processes but also enables metal substitution.
“I think it’s important to understand that many technologies in conventional composite production try to mimic isotropic properties,” Eichenhofer explains. “For that purpose they use fabrics a lot, imposing extreme restrictions on the fiber orientations. That is not ideal because you won’t have the fibers aligned along load directions and therefore lack the ability to fully exploit the performance of the fibers. That’s one of the main drawbacks of conventional composite manufacturing technologies. The root of this approach is partially because isotropic properties are easier to manage in the design phase, however, similarly important, it is essentially also the only way to manually handle millions of fibers in manufacturing efficiently.”
The level of automation we see in the Red Series Build Module, on the other hand, enables users to accurately control the fiber layup. Every fiber in a printed part can thus be oriented according to load directions, resulting in optimized parts.
9T Labs’ Red Series solution is available as part of a manufacturing-as-a-service (MaaS) subscription model. This approach, the company explains, is conducive to achieving series production, as the 9T team can provide support across the design, printing and post-processing stages.
“Customers going into series production need guidance from us. Close relationships are needed and we are working hand-in-hand with our customers to develop production applications,” says Eichenhofer. “That’s why we offer the entire solution as a subscription service, including engineering support. This model enables us to move with our customers together from idea to series production in a matter of months instead of years. In addition, customers do not have to make +10 year investment decisions or eventually be stuck with old technology.”
Ultimately, 9T Labs believes that its composite additive manufacturing technology will be able to compete with metal manufacturing technologies for end-use production. “We want to make composites as accessible as metal manufacturing. If we achieve this, we can really dig deep into a global metal part market that is worth anywhere north of $500 billion. That’s our goal, and obviously there is a huge reward for our customers and us if we succeed,” Eichenhofer concludes.