Impossible Objects have established a strong reputation as manufacturers of high-quality fixtures manufactured from ESD compliant carbon coated fiberglass and resin based materials. Trevor Galbraith interviewed Dan Midgley and Nate Bode at Productronica in Munich.
When we first met, you were producing fixtures for stencils and all sorts of different things in the electronics process. Can you explain to us what are the key features that you bring to the fixturing business and your manufacturing process?
DAN MIGLEY Certainly. Well, the key learnings initially was just the quality of the material set and to ensure we checked all the boxes that the assemblers needed. Thermal deflection. Did we have 300 degrees celsius, which they needed for their processes? Can we hit the mechanical tolerances or the properties that they needed? Do we have an ESD compliant material? All critical parameters. So once we were able to check those boxes, then we were really able to unlock the freedom that additive manufacturing provides; ease of iteration, fast turnarounds, and a material set that’s incredibly lightweight. And learning from our customers has been fantastic. They come back and tell us things that we believe to be an advantage, and they give you the bigger picture as to what it’s meant to their business.
Lightweight operator experience has been phenomenally popular for those who may be handling these tools and fixtures and boards hour after hour after hour. Derisking conveyors and providing less stress and wear and tear on critical pieces of their operation.
Because it’s less weight?
DAN MIGLEY Yes, It’s probably half the weight of the traditional materials they have.
So, initially we started as a bit of a me, too. Can our material sets perform and do the things that the materials they’re used to can? But then it’s just expanded tremendously from there to unlocking that process and the engineer’s creativity.
So let’s talk about the materials themselves. Is it a glass weave that you’re using in the process? What do the material sets comprise of?
NATE BODE Right now, we use carbon fiber peak for most of the work that we do in the electronics industry. We can also do fiberglass peak or fiberglass nylon. Obviously, that’s insulative, so that wouldn’t have ESD compliance.
But for most of our applications, though, the fiberglass peak has been stiff, it’s strong, it’s lightweight, and it has that ESD compliance that most of our customers want.
I believe your manufacturing process is remarkably quick. I mean, Can you explain to us what happens at each stage on that manufacturing process?
NATE BODE Sure. So at the start of the process you have a big reel of carbon fiber paper. And that that carbon fiber paper is fed into the printer. The paper is brought up to tension and then we bring it up to the correct speed, till we have everything in the right place and forces pulling in the right directions and such. And then you begin to print. The system deposits a small amount of water exactly where you want to put the polymer. It’s going to put a water like substance in picolitre sized droplets onto this carbon fiber paper, which can also be fiberglass. And then we deposit polymer powder, in this case, peak, onto it. We’re literally just dropping the powder on top. And that powder sticks exactly where that water is.
And wherever the water isn’t, the powder is dry and loose. And so the coated paper moves into a vacuum process that vacuums off all that loose powder.
So now you have this carbon fiber paper with peak polymer powder, exactly where you want it for a given layer. And then you bring it through to the next stage, where it is cut into sheets, basically creating pages. So it’s taking this long roll and you’re cutting it into pages.
These pages are then stacked into a stack, and that stack is then going to get compressed. Each sheet is a layer of your build block, and it’s stacked with 100-150 micron resolution, layer by layer. And then that stack is going to go into a heat press. The heat press takes the temperature above the polymer’s melting temperature, and then you squeeze it down while all that powder is melted. And when you squeeze it down, that powder, or the polymer infiltrates all of the different fibers of your carbon fiber. You end up with a true composite. So it’s not a sandwich where you end up with carbon fiber, polymer, carbon fiber, polymer, but it’s rather carbon fiber layers with polymer connecting them. All the way through it, permeating through it.
NATE BODE And then you basically sand blast off the loose fiber.
But I believe it’s an amazingly fast process as well?
NATE BODE Due to the fact that the inkjet process is a rate limiting piece, this is all being done at room temperature. And that means that basically we can go as fast as the inkjet printer can print. But inkjet printers are wildly fast. So we can pump through this sheet at 25 linear feet a minute. And so that’s part of where we get this incredible speed. It allows us to be able to make something this large at a throughput of about one every three minutes.
NATE BODE And for these pallets?
DAN MIGLEY A pallet this size, with our current process, would have roughly taken about an hour and 15 minutes to print. Now, for carbon fiber peak 3D printing, that’s incredibly fast. With this machine, this pallet can be printed in four to five minutes.
And I always have to use this little prop as it really kind of highlights the speed difference. The fastest technologies in additive manufacturing that exist today gets you 180 of these in an eight hour shift. We’re closer to about 3000. So it’s an order of magnitude. It’s not, hey, we’re 20% faster.
That’s really changing the paradigm a bit, isn’t it, of 3D printing? It’s amazing. And I’m also looking at some of the other examples you’ve got here, and some of them are fairly complex. Literally, you’ve got a drone here. Obviously, you have to process each of these parts individually and then put it together.
DAN MIGLEY But everything other than the electronics you see was 3D printed. Again, design features that you could not achieve with other processes that allow it to be incredibly rigid, durable, and in this space, lightweight being absolutely critical.
NATE BODE And to that point, in the electronics industry, even little things like wiring clips and connectors, if you want to make them in relatively small volumes, are incredibly expensive to do. But for us, they’re wildly inexpensive. So mixing something like this with even the organic shapes of a small drone like this, where you have organic structures that you just can’t make with standard manufacturing. When somebody mixes the ability to do things like this, with the ability to make things like this, I actually think there’s going to be a major unlock.
Absolutely. And I know that you’re also working on some other projects as well, potentially using nanomaterials. So that’s going to open up even more doors for you?
DAN MIGLEY The process allows for less restrictions as it relates to material sets, which has been another dating item for additive. But if you look at the way this process is performed, the material set combinations in the future have far greater potential than other processes. And even something very simple. We do flat and large very well, which in this space is critical, but we just don’t have thermal tensions. We don’t have the layer by layer. Again, this is ambient temperature until we go into that heated press. Opening up a great deal of potential for the future.
Well, that’s where your nanomaterials might come in for the thermal excursions. Well, you’ve already got ESD built into this, but it would help it as well, I guess.
NATE BODE Yeah. Well, to that point, which is one of the things that we’re constantly focusing on right now is how do we use the fiberglass, which also offers the stiffness, it offers the strength, It’s not quite as light, but it’s not that much heavier? But if we can use those nanomaterials inexpensively in combination with that fiberglass, it would bring the floor out of the cost of the materials. It would make a significant impact for our end customers.
On the face of it, it sounds like a fairly simple system and set of products, but when you actually get into it, there’s a lot to it and it’s very impressive. What is your next step with it in terms of evolution? Is it to work more on the nanomaterial sets or have you got some other. You want to improve the manufacturing system? What is the next step?
NATE BODE It’s all the above. Right now we are actually just starting to sell the high speed machine. So that’s one of the things that we’re pushing on.
So you’re selling the machine then as well? I thought you were actually just working as a service industry providing the process.
NATE BODE We do both. One of the big pieces that we’re focusing on is how do we drive down our material pricing, which is through these nanomaterials. That’s one of the things that we’re doing there, and one of the things that we want to see more of is just how can we use the 3D printing capability here to do things that you just can’t do with traditional manufacturers?
DAN MIGLEY One of my favorite things to do is walk the manufacturing floor at the process engineering level and say to them, look around in a dream world. What was something you would have loved to have had – a tool or a fixture for, that was prohibitive in the past? Let’s talk about the reasons it was prohibitive. And very quickly, you see these lights go on and the wheels turn and they’re coming to us with ideas that for whatever given reason, and we explore why they were prohibitive and unlock create solutions that they were not able to use in the past for a myriad of reasons.
Well, it’s a wonderful process, and I really do want to thank you both for showing it to us today.
DAN MIGLEY Thanks so much for the time. Trevor, it’s always great to see you.
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