Swiss startup 9T Labs stands out in the global 3D printing landscape for leveraging a unique process that combines extensive know-how in continuous fiber reinforced composites, additive manufacturing and tooling to target large serial production runs, across multiple market segments. Whenever a company does something unique in additive manufacturing, something that may seem too ambitious, the only way to understand its actual potential is to see it in person. After closely following 9T’s growth from the start, 3dpbm visited the company’s HQ in Zurich and spoke with Co-founder Giovanni and Yannick Willemin, Head Marketing and Business Development, to understand exactly where 9T stands today and where it’s heading, on its way to scaling composites 3D printing.
Martin Eichenhofer (CEO), Giovanni Cavolina (CCO) and Chester Houwink (COO) founded 9T in 2018 with the goal of delivering the next generation of high-performance manufacturing and aspiring to mass-produce high-performance composites as easily as metals by automating and digitizing the production workflow of composite production. The only way to do this, they realized, was to address the complexities of anisotropic materials and the manual-labor-intensive continuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic polymers (CFRTP) manufacturing.
Scaling composites 3D printing for production
“We started at ETH, here in Zurich,” says Giovanni Cavolina when we meet. “Martin, Chester and I met during a research Ph.D. project. From the beginning, our vision was to work with structural composites and have an impact on the composite market. Our goal has always been to enable metal replacement for higher volumes, in a sustainable way.”
The team built software as a service suite, powered by integrated FEA simulation tools, that allows to quickly come up with highly optimized designs. Then they combined their internally developed additive manufacturing equipment with advanced formative technology to enable serial manufacturing of structural composite parts.
“The big question – Cavolina says – is: ‘Why are these materials not used in more structural applications? Composites have become standard over the last decade in larger structures. But if you look at brackets in a car, if you look at the seat structure in an airplane, they are still always made out of metal.”
The reason – and 9T’s motivation – is to be found in the limitations of continuous fiber reinforced composites manufacturing. Using only AM processes is slow and only feasible for prototypes and tools, while current composites manufacturing processes are either expensive or high labor intensive, thus not scalable.
“We needed to increase both productivity and part quality,” Cavolina says, “so, we came up with a unique combination of using additive manufacturing with molding, in order to get the best out of both.”
The scalable Red Series
9T Labs’ hybrid technology platform, the Red Series, enables high-performance structural parts — in challenging small-to-medium size and thick sections — to be produced in CFRTP composites.
“We see the biggest potential in applications that are produced in high volumes, from 10,000 to 100,000 parts per year,” Cavolina says. “With additive manufacturing, you don’t need as much manual labor as you would need with conventional composites. In addition – he points out – the main advantage of using additive manufacturing the ability to precisely decide fiber orientation, fully exploiting the benefits of anisotropy to obtain different mechanical properties in different areas of a part or in different directions.”
The Red Series Additive Fusion Solution platform consists of a Build Module (the 3D printer providing fiber layup and preform production) and a Fusion Module (the compact compression press providing preform consolidation and final part forming). The hardware is supported by the Fibrify design suite software enabling CAD files to be imported, part design and fiber layups optimized, then moved back into major commercial structural analysis programs to verify structural performance. This unique combination enables companies to produce high-performance parts that are stiffer, stronger, and lighter than metals and plastics.
Cavolina argues that “injection molding is perfect for high volumes, but parts are limited in performance. Even if you were to use advanced polymers such as PEEK and chopped fiber reinforcements you could not replace metal parts. However – he continues – If you could combine 3D printing with molding to obtain reproducibility and part quality through automation, and then combine both to get higher productivity and cost competitiveness, you could replace a metal part without paying more for the composites. Then, suddenly, it gets interesting”
The Red Series system does this using proven industry-standard materials including high-performance neat (unreinforced) and carbon fiber-reinforced polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), polyetheretherketone (PEEK), polyphenylene sulfide (PPS), and polyamide 12 (PA12). Lightweight, structural composite parts capable of replacing metals can be produced affordably with very-low waste, with high levels of reliability and reproducibility. Since the thermoplastic matrices may be melt reprocessed, scrap material and parts can be recycled.
Evolving the technology
While there is no real direct competitor proposing an identical technology on the market, 9T is competing against other composite 3D printing technologies as well as conventional composite manufacturing and CNC systems for subtractive metal part production. One of the main differences with other continuous FRP systems is that the Red Series system uses flat tapes which can present challenges and distortions when they are wound around tight angles.
In 9T’s Deposition Feed process there are two deposition feet and each of them can be used independently of the other. Therefore one can print parts with plastic or chopped fiber plastic only. Also, one can print with the deposition feet feeding the continuous fiber filament (from a pre-impregnated UD tape, it is) without the need to use the neat filament deposition foot.
The continuous fiber deposition foot is two-thirds closed and one-third open, forming a V. It’s a filament guide and it’s always rotating. By keeping the tension constant around the angles and rotating it, the tape wraps around the curves, forming a symmetrical section with almost no issue in terms of fiber distortion.”
The internal factory, with multiple additive machines and formative stations operating in parallel, offers a glimpse of 9T’s vision. Cavolina explains: “Multiple machines are powered by our Fibrify software tools. These include the design software tools used by the engineers to place the fibers where needed and the workflow tools to manage production and send different files and jobs to different machines, with full traceability.”
“It’s important to be able to reach not to only the suppliers but also the OEMs that own the product and that represent the design authority. Because if the technology hasn’t been established in their minds, it will never have the potential to become the standard,” Cavolina points out.
Scaling the composites 3D printing business
Composite manufacturing is going through a radical digitization and automation transition that will only keep accelerating over the next 10 years. 9T Labs wants to be at the forefront of this market by offering a way to mass-produce ultra-lightweight structural parts in the medical industry, aerospace, automotive, leisure, luxury and other industrial segments.
Yannick Willemin, who came on board in 2020 and now heads marketing and business development, explains the company strategy to reach these market segments: “Regulated markets such as aerospace and medical, even automotive to a certain extent, require certifications from regulation authorities, but premium markets are more self-regulated, which makes them faster to access. That’s what we want to hit in the short term. Among the self-regulated markets, we are working on projects in automotive premium models, sports, luxury, and tooling. If you can offer a strong added value with your products, you can enter these segments within six to twelve months. It’s about proving that you can really produce 1,000 to 10,000 identical parts through your process and do so rapidly.
The market is already receptive: in 2021, 9T closed on a record number of new collaboration projects in the fields of aerospace (interior components, brackets, and engine components), advanced aerial mobility (rib stiffeners for wings), medical (surgical instruments), luxury (watchmaking, eyewear), and human exoskeletons (ergonomic support for lifting heavy loads). In addition to all the industrial projects, 9T Labs also delivered commercial systems to customers in research centers, universities, the metal-forming industry, and aerospace Tier 1 suppliers. So far, 9T identified over 300 value-added applications.
“What we do here is mainly derisk the customer’s investment while scaling our company,” Yannick explains. “The faster we can show that the part is being manufactured at the level of quality required, the faster we can then get their approval and their machine orders. There is a learning curve for us, happening in parallel: it’s a lot of learning and, because we produce in-house, we can be very reactive in addressing any concern, with the ultimate goal of generating more machine sales.
“We split applications into three families: the first is consolidation, which includes planar consolidation or reshaping of planar preforms, which ultimately comes down to designing the parts. Then there are parts that are not necessarily a natural fit for our technology, due to high volume and simple geometry, but are still interesting in terms of the performance we could achieve. This is a great source to feed our technology roadmap. Finally, there are applications that are no fit at all. For example, a shell structure, or very thin parts and hollow parts. These may be better suited for other types of composite manufacturing.”
To support the additional growth, the company substantially increased headcount and opened its first office center in the U.S., with Martin and Giovanni alternating between there and the Swiss HQ. Additionally, Yannick confirmed that the first series production of advanced composite parts produced using Additive Fusion Technology will become commercially available by 2022.
“We are now 58 people. About a fifth is working on software development, from interface to machine software. We have a commercial team of about eight people between sales, marketing and other support functions. Then, there are several operators, working on both production cases and development. Most of them are engineers, they work on either machine development or part production. A team is working on the current technology, focusing on iterative optimization based on internal and external feedback. Another team is working on the next generation. So there is plenty of potential in the future – Yannick confidently states – because there is a large field of opportunities that are a good fit from a functional point of view but are not possible to manufacture as such with the technology as it is today.”
This short to medium-term potential for scaling production has also attracted investors: 9T Labs raised $ 17 million USD in a Series A funding round from investors including the world’s leading 3D printing company Stratasys, the venture capital arm of high-performance thermoplastic composites supplier Solvay SA (Solvay Ventures), as well as VC investors Verve Ventures, ACE & Company, Zürcher Kantonalbank and Wingman Ventures.
Other materials companies are also on board as partners. Along with Solvay, which is also an investor, Arkema and Evonik provide several matrix materials (PEEK, PEKK, PPS, PA12, PA11) and 9T uses a tape formulator to produce the tape based on their resins. This capability is most important to ensure repeatability since even the same polymers, from different sources, may not bond properly. “That’s why we have these partnerships that can even go beyond the standard agenda – Yannick says – giving us priority access to existing and future industrial-grade materials. .”
Getting large companies to embrace a new way of making parts is no easy task. “Each customer journey is very different,” Cavolina says, “But it always starts from a proof of concept. We start by looking at prototypes and identifying possibilities to scale by helping the customer find the right application, designing the part, and understanding the manufacturing process. We take them by the hand until they reach serious production levels, which is the end goal. It is crucial that customers always have access to the core composite expertise that 9T Labs can provide.”
In five years, 9T expects to become a manufacturing standard, cost-effective and sustainable solution for metal replacement and high-performance composite parts. “It’s really about rethinking composites so that our children and the next generation of engineers will have a new tool for producing composite parts,” Cavolina concludes. “That’s the vision: a manufacturing standard that will be used by the next generation of engineers and the next generation of manufacturing companies.”