MIT research specialist Matthew Pearlson is the founder of The Foam Printing Project, an innovative advance building on his idea to use additive manufacturing and lightweight foam for the creation of lighter-weight structures so the world could use less fuel. In part one of our interview, we examine Pearlson’s idea for a new technology; in part two, we look at potential implications and applications for a lighter-weight future.
Having discussed background and the process, I asked Pearlson about the implications for his work: what is the great hope for foam 3D printing?
“In the near term, the applicable industry is UAVs/drones. Aerospace already gets 3D printing — you don’t have to convince them. If you can make UAVs lighter weight, you can add value there and extend mission capabilities, extend the duration the aircraft can fly. You can take advantage of all the magic of 3D printing by making mission-specific parts, unique payload pods, customized airfoils or wings. If you take an integrative design approach, you reduce the post-build requirements. What I like to say is: you can print it, paint it, and fly it. What I love about SLA is the incredible details you can produce,” he told me.
He pointed to a 2016 project out of MIT, Cilllia, that 3D printed fine hair-like structures about 100 microns in diameter, noting that creating something “like 3D printed Velcro” offered interesting routes of design. Fine structures and details possible through 3D printing allows for new paradigms of design for objects. Pearlson noted that not needing to get a router or drill involved for avionics and flight controls enables a faster route toward production: “All that stuff can get laid in really nicely.” MIT is, of course, a bastion of innovation with research being done frequently in additive manufacturing, placing Pearlson in an excellent place for his work.
MIT and, more broadly, Boston provide the basis for the longer-term, bigger-picture future Pearlson is targeting.
“Longer-term, I would love to print very large-scale things, like garbage trucks. I like envisioning a world where a garbage truck rolls down the street and you don’t even know it’s there: it’s lightweight, electric, quiet. Garbage trucks get like three miles to the gallon. They’re expensive to maintain, and almost as heavy when empty as when they’re full of garbage. They not only have poor gas mileage, they also wear down their brakes quickly, and those are expensive to repair and replace. Electrify these vehicles and there’s a much lower cost of ownership. It’s a better urban or suburban lifestyle becasue you don’t have this big heavy equipment. The same goes for buses,” he said.
His vehicular vision extends even farther, though, not only using foam 3D printing for heavy-duty vehicles themselves, but loading up the tech to take on the road. Noting that he hoped it didn’t sound too out there, Pearlson laid out a vision of “something like a circus or a rock band” touring with “a couple of tractor trailers going around, then fill a convention hall and print whatever that city or town needs.” Working with local economies, creating jobs for local electricians and others, the on-site capabilities could bring in expertise and technology from place to place, meeting needs. Then, he said, “the band puts everything back in teh tractor trailers and goes around the country lightweighting from stop to stop. But,” he added, “that’s in the future, that’s, like, a long time from now.”
“Look at DLP projector technology — for all intents and purposes, large-format SLA has been figured out. Materialise, 3D Systems, they have this figured out. Today there are HD projectors, HD DLP chips, and in the future 4K and 8K means even smaller features, or four or eight times the build volume when you project a slice. Gang up a couple of printers together and you can see how you would have a large-volume printer,” Pearlson said. “Get a big truck to follow you and there’s your resin supply.”
Keeping the future in mind while developing new techniques allows for a larger mission to be started, taken one step at a time. For Pearlson, these first steps are happening in Boston. The city, a haven for advanced technologies and forward-thinking engineers, is also deeply rooted in American history.
“Boston isn’t a great big, giant town, it’s a small city you can walk across in an hour or two. In a lot of ways it’s like ancient Greece; we just build on top of what was there before. In project development, I looked at fiber optics throughout the city,” he explained. “It occurred to me: it is super expensive to dig up the streets. That’s one of the biggest obstacles to installing fiber optics. Critical infrastructure is also at risk because we’re a coastal city. What if we used SLA for infrastructure? Send out 3D scanners, like Google Street View style, and map it out… you could make custom-printed neighborhood-specific infrastructure that allows cities to overcome some ‘whoopsie-daisies.’
“Boston was designed for cows and horses and carriages, not for everyone to have their own vehicle and unlimited street parking. Walking down the street, there’s not enough room… it’s nearly impossible to get around. Imagine a day when you need to repair some utilities and instead of hiring six guys and a backhoe and a bulldozer and a truck full of fill and asphalt, you have a couple people with a drill and they have access to the utilities right underneath. In my mind, it’s a much nicer version of the world — improvement of something that needs improvement, like infrastructure.”
He acknowledged as well that, great and high-tech as Boston is, it might not be the first adopter for this type of technology. Singapore, perhaps, might be a more likely place for early use of such bold new city planning.
Pearlson is of course realistic, noting throughout our conversation that these longer-term visions are much longer-term; none of this will be possible overnight, nor would it be wise to try to fast-track such solutions. The step-by-step approach toward lightweighting and creating a more agile, sustainable world is necessary to ensure that adoption can itself be sustainable. Proving out concepts and ideas is critical to larger success.
“The path makes sense. Start with UAVs, we don’t have to convince anyone there; SLA and 3D printing are happening anyway,” he told me. “Take advantage of advances in electronics, in material science. You have a lot of smart people throwing money at these technologies, look at Formlabs, Markforged, DSM Somos.”
“I get really excited about the future — and the fact you can do more for less using foam printing is even more exciting. Foam has a lot of applications in things like casting. Think about casting resins with honeycomb structures; imagine a wall of that printed with foam, with four times less material, it will burn out even cleaner. Think of heat exchanger plates or jewelry or impellers for water pumps or propellers; whatever they’re doing with casting, there’s more improvement that can be realized,” Pearlson said. “That’s not 50 years, or 20 years, from now, but just two years, or however long it takes a company to get on board.”
As we wrapped up our discussion, I asked Pearlson what he sees as the primary takeaways as he introduces his approach to foam 3D printing.
Working in research labs, he experienced the common fact that technology being developed there was “10 to 15 years from seeing the light of day, and would maybe end up in an academic journal, but far from the checkout line at Best Buy.” Academia and real-world everyday impact can sometimes be worlds apart, or years from coming together. As he moved forward in his career, he began to see faster routes to impactful introductions: “I learned you could ship a product in two years that could change the world, and that really informed everything I did after working at Microsoft.”
At the heart of Pearlson’s work is the deep-rooted desire to make a difference, and he has been putting in significant work to answer a question he posed to himself: What is an existing application for a new technology that could make a difference?
“I thought with this, what better than taking this existing technology, stereolithography, that’s been around since before I was born, tweak it, and unlock the value for the future that I really see, which is large-scale: lightweight everything,” he said, also noting that he would be delighted if the title of this coverage could be “Lightweighting All the Things.”
In December, Pearlson filed a nonprovisional patent following his proof-of-concept experiment; he is now awaiting action from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Helpfully, he added, he is married to an IP litigator, and he credits his wife for her great help in going through the patent process.
“With IP strategy, this IP position is in a really strong place, where if someone were to acquire the technology they would be in a good place in the marketplace to develop. There is also a lot of know-how as trade secrets in terms of implementation,” he said.
The Foam Printing Project is ready now to be shared with the world — and with companies. Pearlson’s patent-pending technology can be adapted for use on most SLA 3D printing systems, and he is currently in early stages of seeking partners to license the system and begin the process of adoption and growth.
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[All images: Matthew Pearlson/The Foam Printing Project]