9T Labs

Assembly Line

A New Age of Materials Is Dawning, for Everything From Smartphones to Missiles

đź“… Date:

✍️ Author: Christopher Mims

đź”– Topics: Materials Science

🏢 Organizations: Arris Composites, 9T Labs, Orbital Composites

Modern composites, starting with Bakelite, were pioneered in the early part of the 20th century. Other composites were invented at a steady pace, and the industry began to hit its stride in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when automated processes for turning things like carbon fiber into giant structures like airplane bodies and windmill blades reached maturity.

In just the past couple of years, a number of startups have developed processes for creating all sorts of small objects from composites, in a way that is fast and inexpensive. These include Berkeley, Calif.-based Arris Composites, 9T Labs in Zurich, Orbital Composites in Silicon Valley, and others.

Arris shapes carbon fibers using a process that resembles wire bending—imagine how something like a coat hanger is made—says CEO Riley Reese. Then, those shaped fibers are put into a resin, and the resulting form is put into a custom mold that applies heat and pressure to further compress, shape and strengthen the part. 9T Labs uses a similar process, but starts by using “additive manufacturing” (similar to 3-D printing) to lay down narrow strips of carbon fiber into a particular shape, and then molding it in a way similar to Arris’s process, says Eichenhofer.

Orbital Composites is using substantially different processes, says CEO Amolak Badesha. Using off-the-shelf industrial robots with custom print heads that spit out carbon fiber, the company 3-D prints shapes in a process that resembles Harold’s purple crayon, for those familiar with the children’s book. The difference is that while Harold could draw in three dimensions any shape he liked, Orbital uses removable molds to support its carbon-fiber shapes as they’re being printed.

Read more at Wall Street Journal