Carbon3D made a splash onto the technology world stage when CEO Joseph DeSimone unveiled and demonstrated the company's seemingly game-changing 3D printing technology, Continuous Liquid Interface Production, or CLIP, at the TED 2015 conference in mid-March.
Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) was apparently one of those wowed by this breakthrough technology, which harnesses ultraviolet light and oxygen to rapidly "grow" parts. The leading 3D printing software maker announced on Thursday that it's backing Carbon3D with a $10 million investment from its Spark Investment Fund. This is Autodesk's first investment since it launched the fund in August with the aim of investing up to $100 million in those pushing the boundaries of 3D printing.
Raising money at a rapid CLIP
Perhaps fittingly for a company that claims its CLIP technology is 25 to 100 times faster than leading 3D printing technologies, Carbon3D has been raising money at a fast clip. It's now raised $51 million, as it had previously secured $41 million in private equity funds from tech heavyweights Sequoia Capital and a division of Silver Lake.
The start-up has considerable resources to continue developing its innovative CLIP technology. This, of course, makes it a more formidable potential competitor to 3D printing industry leaders 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS).
3D Systems had $284.9 million sitting on its balance sheet at the end of the fourth quarter 2014, while Stratasys had a cash hoard of $442.7 million. Though Carbon3D's funding doesn't compare to the cash positions of the two industry bigwigs, it's still a big take for a start-up that just began operating in 2013.
While we're talking war chests, Hewlett-Packard's balance sheet was bulging with $12.9 billion at the end of the fourth quarter. HP's deep pockets are a huge reason the company sent shock waves through the 3D printing space before it even unveiled its impressive Multi Jet Fusion technology. The company plans to release an enterprise-focused 3D printer based on this tech in 2016.
Technology imitates art
The most compelling part of this story to me is that Carbon3D's two co-founders were inspired to develop CLIP by the robotic assassin T-1000 from the movie Terminator 2, which rises from a pool of liquid metal to assume the form of any person or object.
Similarly, objects made using CLIP technology rise from a pool of UV-light-curable resin. The following diagram shows a spherical object being produced; it's a representation of the bouncy elastomer sphere that DeSimone demonstrated being printed while he was giving his TED talk. Amazingly, it took the Carbon3D printer less than 10 minutes to produce the object, which was about the size of a large Super Ball.
CLIP technology is similar to stereolithography, or SLA, which also uses UV light to selectively cure resin as it produces an object layer by layer. SLA was invented by Chuck Hull, who then went on to found 3D Systems.
However, unlike SLA, which pauses between each layer, CLIP operates continuously, as its name -- Continuous Liquid Interface Production -- suggests. This accelerates the 3D printing process to speeds 25 to 100 times as fast as leading 3D printing technologies. Additionally, it results in printed objects that have a smoother surface finish than conventionally 3D-printed parts, and a structural integrity on par with injection molded parts, according to Carbon3D.
Eliminating the pauses involved an entirely new way of conceptualizing 3D printing. As DeSimone explained in his TED talk, oxygen has traditionally had a bad name with respect to UV-light-sensitive resin because it inhibits curing. Inspired by T-1000, however, CLIP's inventors turned the thought process upside down so that oxygen is key to making the technology work.
Through the use of a transparent, oxygen-permeable window that DeSimone likened to a contact lens, CLIP technology controls the exposure of light and oxygen to the resin. The UV light solidifies some parts of the resin, while the oxygen prevents other parts -- the "dead zone" -- from solidifying. This process allows the object to "grow" from the bottom up in a continuous process.
While 3D printing stock investors shouldn't panic, they should also not underestimate the potential of well-funded Carbon3D's CLIP technology to take business away from their 3D printing companies, most notably 3D Systems, Stratasys, and voxeljet, all of which are involved in the plastics space. The extent of the threat, however, remains unknown at this point, as we don't yet have enough information, particularly on Carbon3D's materials capabilities.
Unless DeSimone has magical powers on par with T-1000's, his live demonstration showed that CLIP is a potentially game-changing technology with respect to speed. And given Carbon3D's backers, it seems highly likely that the company's others claims are also accurate.
If this proves to be the case, then CLIP technology has the potential to disrupt the manufacturing industry. That's because speed, surface quality, and structural integrity -- in addition to materials capabilities -- are key hurdles that have been holding 3D printing back from moving beyond prototyping and select, short-run production applications into a greater array of manufacturing applications.