The composites market is ripe for disruption, given the time, labor and cost required to produce composite parts. It’s no surprise then that several 3D printing companies are going after that market with a primary focus on the reigning royalty of composites: carbon fiber.
This unique bike features a cantilever frame 3D-printed using carbon fiber reinforcement from Arevo Labs. (Image courtesy of Arevo Labs.)
Among those vying for a piece of the pie is Silicon Valley’s Arevo Labs, which has developed its own method for 3D printing with carbon fiber in a way that’s fast, flexible and scalable. The firm has just received a boost to help it bring that technology to market, in the form of a $12.5 million Series B investment round. It’s also got new leadership to guide it there: CEO Jim Miller, who previously worked as a VP at Amazon and Google.
To learn about the technology and these new developments, ENGINEERING.com spoke to Arevo chairman and founder Hemant Bheda.
3D Printing Continuous Carbon Fiber
Bheda explained that Arevo’s composite 3D printing technology relies on a combination of software, robotics, materials and directed energy deposition (DED). The company has developed a process for fusing strands of continuous carbon fiber with thermoplastics, like polyether ether ketone (PEEK) and nylon, as well as a process for depositing it.
“The challenge there is to take 15,000 several-micron-thin carbon fibers and combine them with polymer and to do so in a way that each and every fiber is uniformly coated with the polymer. And in a way in which there are no voids and we are not damaging or destroying the carbon fiber in the process,” Bheda said.
The Arevo process 3D printing with continuous carbon fiber strands. (Image from Arevo Labs video.)
To print the material, Arevo’s relies on a laser-based DED method, rather than the traditional extrusion technique. A laser was chosen for the high energy transfer rate that makes it possible to print at speeds that would influence the scalability of the system. At the same time, Arevo is able to protect the carbon fiber without fraying it.
The result is the ability to produce parts with voids and porosity less than one percent, which is rare in 3D printing. Moreover, the carbon fiber reinforced components exhibit strength that is roughly five times that of titanium at one-third of the weight.
A cross-section of a composite part, revealing its high density. (Image courtesy of Arevo Labs.)
These parts aren’t printed along a traditional X-Y axis. Instead, Arevo relies on an industrial robotic arm to deposit material in X, Y and Z axes, making it possible to 3D print on non-planar surfaces. This is particularly useful given the fact that carbon fibers maintain anisotropic physical properties, meaning that they are stronger in one direction but not another. By printing on all three axes, it’s possible to ensure that the fiber is laid down in the proper orientation for the feature strength required.
In addition to the system itself, Arevo Labs has developed software to take advantage of all of these capabilities. The firm calls it Additive Finite Element Analysis and it is designed to create parts with the highest strength to weight ratio.
“This is done by analyzing the stress vectors in a part, given the specific loading conditions. Then we can orient the carbon fiber along the 3D space, coinciding with the stress vectors, and we can put material only where the stresses are present,” Bheda explained.
So far, the materials that the system can print with are carbon fiber-PEEK and carbon fiber-nylon composites. While the former is meant for aerospace and oil and gas, the latter is meant for industrial applications.
To demonstrate the possibilities with all of these technologies combined, Arevo Labs teamed up with Studio West to create a carbon fiber-reinforced bike frame. The Studio West designers concocted a unique design that was then fed into the Arevo software to create a strength-to-weight optimized bicycle.
A bike designed by Studio West and 3D printed by Arevo Labs. A seat stay between the seat and back wheel has been removed, adding strength and new simplicity. (Image courtesy of Arevo Labs.)
“We invited the designers to ride the bike and they were pleasantly surprised. They mentioned that, for big bike manufacturers who produce carbon bikes, it would take 15 or 16 iterations before they would get this quality of the ride,” Bheda said. “What this means is that we can take the 18-month design cycle needed to create a new bike design and we can collapse it to less than 18 days.”
He pointed out that, with Arevo’s technology, it would be possible to create custom bikes overnight to be shipped the next day.
Inherent to the Arevo process is scalability. While the current system has a build envelope of 1m x 1m x 1m, enough space to 3D print an entire bike frame, it would be possible to attach the printer arm to a gantry or deploy multiple arms to gain even more volume.
How Will Arevo’s Carbon Fiber 3D Printing Hit the Market?
Arevo Labs is still maturing as a company and the next phase for the company will involve making its software available to customers. Included in this software is a “virtual 3D printer” so that customers can visualize how a part will be printed. Additionally, Arevo will produce parts for its customers to demonstrate the ability to scale the technology to make parts in volume.
For Arevo’s technology to tackle a large chunk of the composites market, which Bheda estimates to be in the trillions of dollars, it would also make sense to sell it as 3D printing system. This, Bheda said, is not out of the question.
To do so, the company will have to demonstrate the technology’s capabilities in a number of fields. Bheda has his own qualifications to help in the process–formerly an engineer at Intel and at AT&T Labs Research–but he will be moving to a chairmanship position to focus on the technological vision. To step in and lead the company is Jim Miller.
“Jim Miller was at Amazon when they were trying to figure out the DNA of Amazon and I feel that is the most relevant experience that we can leverage at Arevo,” Bheda said. “Before coming to Arevo, he was vice president of worldwide operations at Google Worldwide, where he was responsible for building Google Cloud. So, he is going to help us take the technology from lab to factory.”
Also assisting the company are its investors. This includes Asahi Glass, which manufactures glass for large automotive manufacturers like Toyota and Honda and can aid Arevo in its automotive applications. Sumitomo, another investor, can help the company develop its oil and gas applications. Other companies involved are Leslie Ventures and Khosla Ventures.
Arevo is currently one of only a few companies working on carbon fiber 3D printing. So far, the most established may be Markforged, which has been selling desktop continuous carbon fiber 3D printers for several years. EnvisionTEC has also promised a large-scale composites 3D printer, which has yet to be released. Impossible Objects is in the process of distributing beta machines. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has also worked with companies like Cincinnati Incorporated to incorporate carbon fiber into 3D printing, but so far these materials do not involve continuous carbon fiber, but much less strong chopped carbon fiber.
In other words, the space is small, but already competitive. It will be exciting to see how Arevo Labs affects both 3D printing and composites as a whole. To learn more about the company, visit the Arevo website here.