By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 08, 2023
3D printers and contract composite manufacturing services
Impossible Objects founder Robert Swartz brought a mathematical approach to 3D printing. "It originated literally in the garage of the founder with a radical new idea," says Hoover.
Swartz became entranced with 3D printing because of the mathematical possibilities -- for example, the ability to print mathematical constructs like Möbius strips and Klein bottles.
Explains Hoover, "It's atoms to bits, if you will, and how do I convert bits to atoms? That's what 3D printing does. He got enamored with the merging of the physical and digital worlds."
Swartz subsequently started developing his own 3D-printing technology from scratch. He saw a need for innovation: entrenched technologies are not a good match for mid-volume manufacturing.
"There's a few fundamental ways to do 3D printing today," explains Hoover. "They melt plastic and squirt it out of a nozzle, like a hot melt glue gun. They shine light on a chemical and they cure it. They take a bed of powder, and they shine a laser on it to fuse those particles together. All of those have some significant limitations, and Bob devised the CBAM process -- the composite-based additive manufacturing process -- to get around those."
CBAM's big selling points? Material properties and printing speed.
Hoover elaborates, "Because of our process, the way it inherently works, we can combine two disparate materials together and make a composite. Everybody knows composites are the strongest things out there. You want carbon fiber, fiberglass."
"A lot of 3D printing has traditionally been relegated to prototyping because of part strength -- the robustness of the materials," he continues “It's gotten better over time -- you've got metal printers today, but compared to any other kind of polymer-based printer, we can make stronger and better parts."
Printing speed will ultimately be the biggest differentiator, Hoover adds. "The major thing today keeping 3D printing from breaking into low-volume manufacturing -- let alone mid-volume or high-volume -- is simply speed. They're just slow."
CBAM can take place at room temperature, however, accelerating the process. "You start with a 3D CAD model, you slice it into layers, and then you print each of those individual 2D layers and stack them up to make a 3D part," explains Hoover. "That's how all 3D printers work. We do that as well; the difference is: Our 2D-printing process -- the way we make a layer -- happens at room temperature."
This means there is no heating or cooling cycle required for each layer. "All those other processes, you've got to melt a polymer and cool it down, or you've got to evaporate liquid or fluid, or you've got to cure a chemical," Hoover continues. “And those are all slow, rate-limited processes. Their fundamental print speed is limited by those physical processes. Because we print at room temperature, we actually look a lot like traditional 2D printing. We use all of the technologies to do high-speed digital printing, which can go at literally hundreds of layers a minute."
He notes that the technology used by Impossible Objects will eventually be capable of printing 200 to 300 layers a minute. "We've got a road map in the future which radically increases the print speed, which opens up a whole lot more market."
Impossible Objects delivered its first printers, early iterations of today's models, to customers in 2017. The company's CBAM-2 3D Printer debuted in 2020 and now starts at about $250,000. Research institutions and corporate skunkworks are among the early adopters.
After leaving Xerox in 2019 and a stint at Rochester Institute of Technology, Hoover joined Impossible Objects as CEO in 2022. "I got to know the company when I was CTO for Xerox," he says. "I was leading all of the product development as well as early-stage innovation for Xerox."
Hoover says he saw it as a great fit at the right time. "I have a history in innovation and taking things out of the lab, and this was a brand-new process," he says. "I was really impressed with the technology. The fundamental nature of it, this different process means that I can print at room temperature, meaning I can print so much faster than anybody else, and get good part strength as well."
The company manufactures printers at its 13,500-square-foot facility in Northbrook, where more than 20 of the 30 employees are based. "We have a footprint in Rochester [New York] where there's a hotbed of talent around printing," says Hoover. "That's why we're there: to draw that talent from the declining industry, which is printing on paper, to the growing industry, 3D printing."
Leveraging "a rather extensive supply chain," he adds, "We are doing our build and assembly in Illinois. We produce these machines in low enough volumes that they're hand-assembled -- we're not tooling an assembly line or anything like that. We have a highly capable internal workforce doing the assembly."
The company uses a network of suppliers – mostly from the U.S. and including a lot of local suppliers from Illinois -- “that are doing the electronics, making our boards for us, machining parts, waterjet-cutting parts, that type of thing," says Hoover.
Impossible Objects offers contract manufacturing services as well as its printers. "In that same facility in Northbrook, we also have a piece of the manufacturing floor that is dedicated to our internal parts production," says Hoover. "We have three of our machines that we're running all the time making parts for people."
In terms of sales, he notes, "The machines and the material supplies dominate -- they're the majority of your revenue over time -- but the parts business is really important because it allows you to break into new applications. It allows you to hear from real, end-use customers what's important about the parts that you make as you're introducing a new technology."
Early adopters include makers of drones along with EV and tooling manufacturers -- particularly electronics tooling manufacturers. "It's a really great way to prove our technology in use in real-world parts," says Hoover of the latter.
Impossible Objects' revenue more than doubled in 2022, and Hoover forecasts similar growth in 2023. "We expect a significant uptick this year, and in 2024 with this new product, it's radically faster than anything on the market, so we expect to get a lot of attention," he says.
Challenges: The supply chain for electronics. "Parts availability is a nightmare," says Hoover. "We're starting in January and February and looking at what we'll need in September."
"We do feel the pain of energy costs in the form of plastics," he adds. "The costs for these raw materials have been really noisy, and in fact, people are therefore upping their minimum order quantities."
Opportunities: "The big one is to take 3D printing into mid-volume manufacturing," says Hoover. "I believe this can really revolutionize 3D printing."
A new Impossible Objects printer slated to hit the market in Q1 2024 could just spark the revolution. "That will be a much faster printer, really realizing this dream of speed," he says. "The one we make today, it's as fast as the fastest ones in history, but not faster. We'll be radically faster and delivering all these material properties."
The snarled supply chain also catalyzes an opportunity for Impossible Objects in that it "creates demand for 3D printing," adds Hoover. "All of the supply chain issues and the focus on reshoring and the focus on being less dependent on a Chinese supply chain is a tremendous opportunity for us."
In the longer term, aerospace is a major target, and Impossible Objects is working to lay a foundation now. "We're now up to $7 million in R&D grants from the Air Force to prove out our technology in a variety of drone and aerospace applications," says Hoover.
Needs: "More investment," says Hoover. "We've been pretty successful at going out and raising $7 million in government grants as well as building this parts business, but we need to further accelerate to build out our capacity. I really believe I'm going to be both capital- and labor-limited in 2024 in my ability to ramp that new machine's deliveries and installs."