It’s not often the additive manufacturing industry hears about a wholly new 3D printing technology, but that’s exactly what founder of Paxis Mike Littrell says he has in the works. The technology, called WAV (pronounced wave), has been talked about for some time now—its inventors did, after all, showcase a 3D printed surfboard made in a single piece using the system—but largely, it has remained under wraps.
Though we don’t have a literal picture of the still enigmatic WAV additive manufacturing process, we recently spoke to Littrell, Founder and CEO, and Elizabeth Goode, Sr. Consultant and Investor Relations of Paxis, who painted a compelling image of the new technology, which combines multi-resin production, a virtually limitless build volume, rapid printing speeds (much faster than existing photopolymerization systems) and cost effectiveness.
From service bureau to AM pioneer
Littrell has been an active member of the additive manufacturing industry for over two decades and is well known within the sector as being the founder of 3D printing service bureau CIDEAS Inc.
“I started CIDEAS service bureau 21 years ago,” he tells us. “At the time, I thought I was starting late in the game, because 3D printing had been around for over a decade. When I began building CIDEAS it was with a focus on FDM, which at the time was a rare technology to start a service bureau with because the equipment was considerably slower, there were limited materials and part quality was always a concern.
“At the time, most 3D printing bureaus were either engineering houses or injection molding houses or CNC machine shops that brought in an additional piece of technology. So CIDEAS was unique in the fact it was built for the purpose of 3D printing for hire.”
Over the course of CIDEAS’ history, the company was an early adopter of PolyJet 3D printing, a beta tester for Stratasys’ production FDM system (eventually becoming the 450 and 380 mc platform), a reseller for 3D Systems printers and an early access beta customer for Carbon’s first 3D printer. Most recently, it added two EOS P770s to its fleet. CIDEAS also offers finishing, engineering and software development services to its customers. All that to say, from the very beginning, Littrell’s endeavors in the industry have been forward thinking.
Introducing Fred Knecht
A few years ago, however, something happened which would alter Littrell’s journey within the AM industry.
“At the time, I was looking for a software programmer who would develop our own comprehensive online quote engine, and I was introduced to Fred Knecht,” Littrell explains. “He came on board and his full-time job became developing True-Quote™ for us, which is a very comprehensive quoting engine that allows you to adjust the orientation of your part, see it live and select the process and material of choice.
“Because Fred didn’t come from 3D printing, he didn’t go out and look at other people’s quote engines to get an idea of how to make it. Instead, he asked what we wanted [needed] in our quote engine and he created True-Quote. During his research and development phase, he started realizing that engineers and operators were complaining about trapped volume parts when working with photo-curable resins.
“He asked himself if it would be possible to produce a part without trapped volume. And he had this kind of Doc Brown moment where he came to see me and said ‘I think I’ve invented a new 3D printing technology.’
“As he explained it to me, I realized he had solved the issue of trapped volume. My first thought was ‘why hasn’t someone else come out with this yet?’ and my second thought was ‘we’ve got to get going on this now!’ This was about 3.5 years ago. At that point, I decided this was far too important for us to ignore. Paxis was formed and we immediately started filing patents and working on the technology. It became his full-time job.”
Filing the patents for WAV
“Within a few months of Fred first bringing me the concept, we filed our first provisional patents in the United States and filed our PTC applications,” Littrell continues. “Excitingly, this July we were granted the patent on our very first filing!
“Fred was very conscientious about the cost of bringing a new product to market, so he wanted to prove that the technology could work within the provisional phase. He built a proof of concept machine and successfully printed the first layer before we even filed the non-provisional.
“The great thing about Fred’s invention is that, while his goal was to solve trapped volume within liquid photopolymer technologies, he actually solved multiple problems in the industry.”
Understandably, Littrell and Knecht were keen to keep the new additive process under the radar, especially until it could be proven. When that happened, the pair brought in Elizabeth Goode, a 20-year veteran of the AM industry who had done consulting work with Littrell for five years.
“When we began the development of the technology, we separated Paxis from CIDEAS. I’ll admit we didn’t tell any of the CIDEAS employees here,” Littrell says. “They thought that we were working on an advanced material dispensing system for one of our clients. Elizabeth was the very first person outside of the four walls of CIDEAS that I discussed the technology with. After we ran the very first layer on the printer, I called her and said ‘I know what I’m looking at, but I need you to come out here and see this under NDA and validate it for me.’”
Goode adds: “My first thought was, this is impressive. It was the first technology that I saw that was something new and fresh in the industry—I immediately saw the technology had the potential to move the industry forward.
“There has been tremendous development in the AM industry, yet there are some inherent issues that could only be solved by starting new, from the ground up. Limitations and barriers in terms of size, vats and trapped volume—this technology eliminates all of that. It really is the next iteration of where additive is going to go. When Mike showed me WAV, it didn’t just solve an issue, the technology was designed to meet the demands of today’s applications, provide material flexibility, and remove size restrictions without compromising speed. A new tool for service bureaus, internal AM departments, and the manufacturing floor.
“Everything we’ve talked about for years comes down to materials and applications. How do you get that end part material and how do you produce materials for end use applications? This machine allows for diversity of materials like no other technology out there.”
The question of materials
Arguably one of the biggest draws of Paxis’ WAV technology is its multi-material compatibility. According to its creators, the technology can use a broad range of third-party, off-the-shelf resins, as well as custom exotic and hybrid materials.
As Littrell tells us: “Most OEMs today have internal material development arms that are constantly developing materials for themselves. Our technology isn’t going to be completely agnostic: the machine will require certain material designs in order to run properly, so we’ll be partnering with multiple material companies on the development side.
“For instance, if a large aerospace company has a materials development arm that is working on interior components, they might have developed a material that can be translated into a photo curable resin. Because the technology is modular, we are approaching customer solutions a little differently. Like most technologies available today, WAV will be made available with a material they can use off the shelf from a catalog of materials. In addition, we are bringing the end-user and material developer of their choice into the conversation with us to configure the machine their requirements, use materials that are focused on their applications and end-use requirements.
“It won’t be as easy as adding materials into a current machine, but one of the advantages of our product is that we can run multiple materials in the same machine. To move the industry forward and breakdown some of the barriers the AM industry has faced, the materials that we are going to offer with our partners will be outside the box.”
A workable footprint
The technology is also characterized by a small footprint, allowing for its integration into existing manufacturing facilities and office spaces. In terms of speed, the WAV technology is expected to reach speeds up to 24 times faster than competing laser, DLP or jetted-based photopolymerization systems.
“There are some significant limitations to the machines that exist today,” adds the Paxis founder. “Part of that is related to buildable area, and the other big factor is material costs. Combined, these two things made it very cost prohibitive to take a 3D printer and use it in manufacturing that isn’t mass customization.
“When you look at the hearing aid industry or the aerospace industry, they have very solid cost justification models that explain why 3D printing is far superior to traditional manufacturing methods. But when looking at the current additive manufacturing space, what we realized —Elizabeth and I—is that the biggest problem that we have is footprint of the machine, the buildable area of the machine, the scalability of the machine as well as the material that goes into the machine.”
In an early and incredibly impressive demonstration of its technology, Paxis revealed a full-size surfboard which was 3D printed in a single piece using WAV technology. Measuring 85 inches in length, the surfboard generated lots of attention for the company and its still enigmatic technology.
“We made an 85-inch-long part that technically could not have been built using any known liquid photopolymer-based technology today in a single piece,” the Paxis founder says. “The only other machine that could have built that part in a liquid polymer is the Mammoth in Belgium, but that would have required an estimated $500k worth of resin loaded at all times. When we built the surfboard, we had less than a liter of material loaded into the machine at any given time—so you’re talking just a few hundred dollars of material.
“What makes the surfboard so unique is its honeycomb interior. It’s got this support structure inside made up of probably 10,000 voids. Using an SL process, you’d have to drill a hole in each void to empty the non-cured resin, but we overcame this.”
Aside from the surfboard, the ability to avoid trapped volume in single-piece prints could lead to exciting applications down the line, including embedded electronics or 3rd party components inserted into the part as it is being built in a single piece.
Continuing to talk about potential applications for the WAV technology, it became clear that the Paxis team are not honing in on a single market.
Littrell says: “We’ve talked about what our target markets are on multiple levels. And we don’t consider our machine strictly for 3D printing or advanced manufacturing. We think it covers all those areas but also opens up the doors to new avenues in vertical markets that haven’t yet been tapped.
“That’s been the most exciting thing over the past two decades: I’ve been able watch vertical markets evolve as machines evolved and became more accessible, as 3D CAD software became more available and cost effective. When I saw Fred’s idea for the first time, I was excited about the fact that the technology is going to open up entirely new vertical markets that haven’t been addressed yet due to the limitations of other technologies.”
“Imagine constructing an entire wall and building the plumbing and electricity directly in it,” he continues. “Or imagine building a windmill blade on site where the windmill is being installed, and being able to do that with a honeycomb interior and with electronics embedded directly inside. When we look at the scalability of our technology, that’s where it starts to get really interesting.”
Coming to market
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the WAV process—aside from its ability to print with multiple materials and scalability—is the strategy Paxis has for introducing the technology to the additive manufacturing and larger manufacturing industries.
“Our goal is to design the machine around our customers’ needs,” comments Littrell. “Having worked in the AM industry for as long as I have, I understand the pain points of end users, so we’re looking at potential customers and asking ‘what do you want on this machine that will make your life easier?’
“The struggle that we’re going to be facing and what we’ve been addressing for the last 3.5 years is that we are designing and building everything from the ground up. This takes a little more time than if we were creating a system similar to what is currently available. Fortunately, we’re on track, and I have to admit that receiving our initial U.S. patent for an entirely new technology was beyond exciting.
“The patent not only validates that we’ve come up with something new but it also gives us a placeholder, so to speak. Without having a granted patent, the valuation of our company would be significantly less. For the past few months, Elizabeth and I have been talking with potential investment partners. We are weighing our options on which direction makes the most sense for Paxis and the WAV technology. That’s our forefront question: how do we want to fund the technology?
“10 years ago, this announcement would have gained more attention. Today, people tend to gloss over it because of the sheer number of announcements made in the 3D printing industry. We have reached out to industry leaders and brought them in under NDA to further validate the technology, as well as demonstrate the technology in person. The first announcement regarding the results of these visits was our partnership with BASF to develop materials.
“The development of WAV is slow and steady, we look at this as a long-term project. Our aim is to develop strategic partners that are in line with the customer requirements while changing the way AM is thought of and used in manufacturing,” continues Littrell. “Our strategy is to push AM into traditional manufacturing models. That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
The journey towards commercialization
Littrell concludes: “To be semi-altruistic, I never thought in the 21 years I’ve been in this industry that I could possibly contribute—along with Elizabeth and Fred—a change that could actually be felt for years to come. For me, having the opportunity to do that means I’m already successful. I’m happy that we’re able to contribute. When new technologies come out it inspires innovation and forces other companies to rethink how they do things and ultimately develop better products.
“In the big picture, that’s a positive. It’s refreshing when companies come out with new materials and technologies that force everyone back to the drawing board. When I started, I thought I was in the infancy of the industry. The reality is, we’re currently in the infancy of this industry and we’re just now starting to see it break out and break open.
“I think it would be pretty arrogant to think that our technology will replace any specific technologies that currently exist. It won’t. These are all individual tools in the toolbox. They’re all very valid and there’s a reason they all exist. But we’re hoping to add a new versatile tool to your toolbox—that’s really what the end goal is.”