60X stronger than steel: world-first high-speed carbon fiber 3D printing

We know carbon fiber is strong: 60X stronger than steel when constructed the right way. The problem has always been finding ways to 3D print it at speed, and for large objects.

Arevo says it’s found the solution: “the world’s first high speed additive manufacturing system for continuous carbon fiber composite structures.” It’s literally the size of a shipping container, and it can print a volume about a meter cubed. And it works via an additive manufacturing thermoplastic process that prints both horizontally and vertically for added strength.

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Companies pay hundreds to thousands of dollars per kilogram for carbon fiber products, and Arevo says it has the fastest and best way to make them on the fly. Stronger and better because it’s true 3D printing, not 2.5D, and faster: a monocoque carbon fiber bike frame in about a day.

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Transcript: Carbon fiber 3D printers the size of shipping containers

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Carbon fiber is an amazing material. It’s super light, but three times stronger than steel. The Lamborghini Centenario is 87% carbon fiber apparently. Tennis rackets, hockey sticks have carbon fiber — anything that you want to be light and strong, and not grow or shrink with temperature changes, can be carbon fiber.

But … it’s traditionally been expensive, and preparing for manufacturing carbon fiber is slow and bulky and takes a lot of time. Can 3D printing help?

Today, we’re chatting with Sonny Vu, CEO of Arevo. They just closed a $25 million round of funding, total funding of $85 million now, and shipped the Aqua 2, ‘the world’s first high speed additive manufacturing system for continuous carbon fiber composite structures.’ I read that from the press release.

It’s the size of a shipping container. It can make big parts, almost a meter cubed. Sonny, welcome to TechFirst! 

Sonny Vu: Great to be here. Thanks, John, for having us.

John Koetsier: Hey, super happy to have you. This is exciting stuff, obviously. Let’s start sort of right at the very beginning: what made you focus on carbon fiber? Why are you into carbon fiber? What is the point? What’s so cool about it? 

Sonny Vu: Well, I’ve been a fan of 3D printing for a long time. We bought our first 3D printer in 2002 or 2003 for my … about three startups ago. I believe it was a Stratasys machine — don’t quote me on that — and it was an amazing machine, you know, it broke down a lot, but when it worked it worked marvelously. I mean, this was like super early, okay.

So the fact that someone was making something like that for industrial use … incredible.

And so I’ve been following this industry for a long time, been wondering why in the world have people not made the— why has the dream of additive manufacturing, using 3D printing techniques, not become a reality? Like people talk about it, but it’s not really in mass use, you know?

And so, and I realized … and this is the answer to your question: competing against plastic and metal is really tough. Competing against injection molded plastic … that’s tough, man, because people can make tools super fast now. It used to be because, oh, we could do it faster. It’s like, well no, people can make hard tools like in days now, used to be weeks or months.

And metal, you know, competing against metal shaping technologies, forged metal processes is pretty tough. People have gotten, can make that stuff pretty low cost.

But carbon fiber, that’s another thing, ’cause people are paying hundreds, and the aerospace industry, thousands of dollars per kilogram of finished parts. 

Arevo carbon fiber 3D printer

John Koetsier: Wow!

Sonny Vu: I’m like, okay yeah. So the average selling price for the material is much higher, so it makes it much more worthwhile. And that’s just because, as you said, it’s the process for setting up these lines, for running them, you’ve got to have really skilled people running them. It just takes a very long time and it’s really expensive. That’s why it’s fancy cars and fancy bikes and military aircraft, those are the ones who get the carbon fiber first.

John Koetsier: Well, we want carbon fiber everywhere. I mean, there’s a lot of different uses for it. I was talking to Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft, and he had to use carbon fiber because he was making sort of a microscope/camera to photograph snowflakes, which obviously melt if you warm them up, and he needed something that he could move between warm and cold environments and have temperature changes without changing in size or orientation. So it’s super useful stuff. 

Sonny Vu: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: Talk to me about Aqua 2. What can it do? 

Sonny Vu: So we built the systems to basically automate the creation of 3D structures of structures, using carbon fiber. And so this is our second system — our first one’s Aqua 1 — it’s the Aqua 2.

It’s a lot faster. It’s actually over four times faster than the previous system. What that actually means is now we can print an entire — and it’s also big, we can print an entire bike frame in one go. So no molds, no fancy tools. Just think of a frame, we print it, and it’s the entire frame in one piece unibody, and we’ll do it in less than a day.

And it used to take over, it was like one or two weeks to do it before. But now we can pop them out, you know, a whole composite frame… and from nothing, like we just need the file and it prints. Before, you’d have to build the molds, build the fixtures, build the line, figure out how the different pieces fit together, you make each piece and then you glue them all together, and then you autoclave it — you have to thermally, you have to heat it up, and so that kind of binds together — and then there’s your bike.

But this is just, you know, it comes out of the box. 

John Koetsier: Is this the strongest possible way you could make something like that because it is built integrally, one piece, as you said, versus multiple components sort of joined together? Is it kind of the strongest way you could possibly build something?

Sonny Vu: We think it’s probably one of the strongest ways that certainly we can think of, because it’s one piece instead of multiple parts. You know, people say, ‘Well, I have a monocoque bike.’ It’s like yeah, well, yes, all bike frames have to be one piece or else you can’t ride it, okay, we understand.

It’s: how did it start life? If it started life as a bunch of small pieces that you kind of wrap carbon fiber sheets around molds and then glue and bolt them together, then yeah, you’d have a bike ’cause you can ride it, it’s not in multiple pieces. But if you hit a tree, it’s going to go back into the multiple pieces that it came in.

Ours is literally one continuous frame, one piece, so there’s no seams, no glue, no bolts, none of that stuff. And so we think it’s one of the strongest. It’s also strong because it’s thermoplastic.

So there’s thermoset and then there’s thermoplastic. And so thermoplastic, just kind of the next generation of the polymer matrix used for composites. I think thermosets were mostly used in the aerospace industry in the eighties and they’ve moved on to thermoplastic. The bike industry hasn’t done that, it’s just stayed with thermoset because it’s just what people know. It’s hard to work with thermoplastic. So we’re, I think, making one of the world’s first thermoplastic bikes — so, second generation composite materials, in a sense. And so it’s much more impact resistant. 

carbon fiber 3D printed e-bike

John Koetsier: Can you quantify how much stronger this is than earlier ways — and we’ll stick with the bike thing, but obviously this is used in multiple different areas as you mentioned, even military applications potentially, other things like that, but — how much stronger is this than previous materials?

Sonny Vu: Yeah, so we can think of strength in a number of different ways. Now comparing to metal, it’s obviously much stronger than metal on a strength-to-weight ratio, okay? And so, for not much weight, you get a ton of strength.

And compared to steel, in the right areas and the right orientation of the fibers, thermoplastic carbon fiber composites can be almost 60 times stronger than steel. It’s way, way stronger … 15 times more than titanium if, again, from a strength-to-weight ratio, okay?

And also if the fiber’s in the right place, so there are a lot of these, you know, there’s some of these asterisks, but that’s what our system it’s trying to do, is to make sure that we align the fibers in the direction where you need the strength, ’cause it’s what’s called an anisotropic material. The material properties are dependent on the orientation of the materials, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Sonny Vu: Whereas [inaudible] it’s just like one big goo, you know, it’s all homogeneous. So, now the other part of your question is how does it compare with other composites? You know, the thermoset, these sheets that I was talking about, versus thermoplastic, which is what we’re using now, where we’re doing literally individual bundles of fiber at a time. And the difference really is in impact resistance and its toughness, okay. So, meaning if you hit a tree … you know, with thermoset you have a lot of strength, but if you hit something it might crack. Whereas here you hit a tree with our bike, and I don’t think we have a tree claim or anything like that, but you’re probably going to be fine because it’s a very tough material. It has a give and therefore it just can absorb a lot. 

John Koetsier: Nice.

Sonny Vu: So it’s great for like mountain bikes. Now if you wanted to do a really light bike, we’re probably about the same as thermoset, but if you wanted something that was really impact resistant, then those applications are great for what we’re doing.

John Koetsier: Okay, good. Now 3D printing of course is amazing. You were talking about doing it in 2002, which is also kind of amazing, but it’s traditionally been slow, right? And you mentioned off the top that your Aqua 2 can print a frame for a bike or other things in about a day.

How much faster is that than we would have done 3D printing previously, maybe even your Aqua 1? And where do you see that getting over time? Because of course, time is money, right? And you’ve got this shipping container-sized piece of manufacturing equipment and it’s producing one frame a day, that’s going to be a fairly expensive frame. 

Arevo 3D printer size

Sonny Vu: Yeah. Yeah. So previously when we were actually selling the machines, we’re selling them for $1.4 million each. So these are very expensive — we obviously make them for a lot less than that, but we’ve really shifted our model to just having our own facility where we just make the printers for ourselves and we make parts for people. So that was like the big shift that we did in the last year and a half.

In terms of speed of comparison, it’s a lot faster than our previous generation, which, there really aren’t that many of those printers out there.

But if you were going to make a comparison, it’s over four times faster. And also it’s not just the deposition speed, but the algorithms we used make printing much more efficient. So overall, way, way faster. It used to take us one to two weeks to make a frame and now it’s under a day.

So it’s in a sense, so, between the algorithmic improvements and the deposition speed, we’ve really gotten this down to be a truly industrial kind of scale.

Now the other thing is, now compared to other printers, let’s say, there aren’t really other large continuous carbon fiber printers out there. There just aren’t. I mean, other composite printers are using mostly chopped fiber. So it’s little bits of fiber like less than two millimeters long, maybe five millimeters long that is kind of included in the melted plastic. And it adds some strength, but it’s nothing compared to continuous carbon fiber.

And the other thing is we’re also making it large. I mean, it’s up to a cubic meter is what we can print. So most people, I mean, other printers that we know of are … would probably fit inside our build volume. 

John Koetsier: [laughing] That’s pretty crazy. I want a hockey stick made with this material. I mean, I’ve had hockey — I play ice hockey. I’m Canadian from Vancouver. And I’ve had hockey sticks that have carbon fiber in them and there’s a few strands there, right, in some of the high stress areas on the heel of your blade and other places like that, but—

Sonny Vu: Yep. Well we could print that whole thing on our — I mean, unless you’re, I don’t know how tall you are, but… 

John Koetsier: More than three feet.

Sonny Vu: Okay. Well, unless you’re, what, square root of three, times a meter, right, 1.7 or so meter, you need a stick longer than 1.7 meters, then … I think we’re good. 

John Koetsier: I do not. I’m not Zdeno Chara. [laughter]

Sonny Vu: Okay. Well, we are actually printing — it’s funny, you mentioned that, we have a couple of customers, one who’s 212 and one who’s 216 centimeters tall … so seven-one and seven-four or something like that. And so, they’re going to have a hard time finding a carbon fiber bike that’ll fit them. So we can print that for them. So we’re excited to — so the customization thing is kind of what you get for free with 3D printing.

But it’s the scale, like the size of the print is one thing. We talked about speed, but I really say the build volume is pretty important here, but the other is the scale of production, you know? So, you have a bunch of, if you have a few printers laying around, right, you can print one or two bikes a day. Great. But what if you wanted 2,000 bikes next month, right?

John Koetsier: I know.

Sonny Vu: So that’s, well we certainly need to do that. We have to deliver on our promises with our backers because we’ve sold a bunch of bikes online. No problem. We’ve still got to deliver on that and people are watching, as they should be.

But we can print now almost 2,000 bikes a month. So we have 70 of these printers in … 76 total actually, between our facilities in California and Vietnam. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Sonny Vu: So it’s a lot. I mean, 76 times 30, right, so … yeah, over 2,000 frames a month now. 

John Koetsier: I’ll ask a question about that. You mentioned your facilities and you’re in the Bay Area, and you’ve got facilities in Vietnam. I mean, one of the promises of 3D printing is to sort of onshore manufacturing capability, right? 

Sonny Vu: That’s right.

John Koetsier: I mean, you know, it doesn’t print it close to where it’s needed. You don’t need a whole supply chain with 15 different components that you assemble. It’s like build it, done, ship it. Why do you have a facility in Vietnam?

Sonny Vu: Yeah, now that’s a great question. So there’s a couple of things. First is, it’s just faster and easier to do business over there. 

John Koetsier: [laughing] Okay.

Sonny Vu: The government is very supportive, like we got the land rights, the building, built out the infrastructure, did the refurbishment, moved in our equipment and got the permits — did I say permits yet? — we did all that in three months, man. I don’t know if I can get a permit in three months here in the United States. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

an Arevo carbon fiber 3D printer

Sonny Vu: You know? So, and this is because people there, the government, the people, everybody wants this to happen. And so, here, you know it’s… 

John Koetsier: It’s a little harder.

Sonny Vu: It’s just a different environment. And the other thing is we can get talent there very fast because people know who we are. Misfit [Vu’s previous wearable tech startup] was one of the largest, I would say top two largest exits in tech history in Vietnam, which is, you know the bar is lower over there than in the Bay Area, obviously … but I think that there’s people that are excited to hear what we’re doing next, and this is cool.

I mean, it’s carbon fiber, robots and lasers — what’s there not to be excited about? 

John Koetsier: [laughter] Exactly. One of the things you talk about is True 3D deposition, right? Are most 3D printers not really 3D? 

Sonny Vu: So a lot of what you see, especially in the carbon fiber world, and I’m pretty sure in other parts of the world too, it’s 2.5D. You’re doing layers and layers at a time, okay. So flat layers. We actually can print vertically, so we can pull fibers up at an angle and you can see it in our videos, which I’ll send you some. Yeah, with our process we can print at an angle ’cause it’s a robotic arm. 

John Koetsier: Which is great for structural strength, right? Because your fiber is going in multiple directions, correct? 

Sonny Vu: Exactly. That’s exactly it, because you want fibers to go in lots of directions. You want to mesh, that way you get not just a strengthened XY direction, but Z as well. So if it’s in the context of a bike, you could have torsional strength and not just strengthened the plane … yeah.

John Koetsier: That makes sense. Talk about your vision of 3D printing and mass manufacturing. Now you talked about it a little bit off the top: it’s hard to compete with injection molded plastic and other things like that. Where do you see this going over the next little while? What will be 3D printed? What will be mass printed? Will those two come together at all? Will there be products that have bits of both? How’s that going to look, in your opinion? 

Sonny Vu: I think it’s going to be bits of both, and to answer your original question of, well, why are we doing this in Vietnam? It’s the speed, type of market, kind of pragmatism and the scale at which we can do this, okay.

But we are absolutely doing this on shore in the United States, in Europe and whatnot, that’s coming next. The next print farms are definitely going to be in the United States and in Europe. So 3D printing fits with mass production in a great way, because it helps you deal with your inventory issues.

You know, you don’t have to have a bunch of parts sitting around waiting to be used. So there’s like cash that doesn’t get used up. The second is, it’s kind of instant on. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Sonny Vu: And then there’s the hyperlocal aspect, which we talked about, which is actually much larger, much more important these days in the post-pandemic world. In the current, I was going to say post trade war world, but we’re not there yet [laughter] … move it for another decade or two.

With all these uncertainties, people are in a sense, they want to be globalized, they want to do hyperlocal — they want to, not even hyperlocal, they just want to do local onshore manufacturing. And so additive manufacturing is absolutely going to play a key role in this, but it has to get — the cost has to get down. And so it will be a hybrid approach for a while. So you get whatever you can 3D print cost-effectively, you would absolutely want to do it.

Unfortunately, you can’t 3D print most things. I wish I could say, oh yeah, we’re going to be 3D printing everything soon, replicators coming—

John Koetsier: Yeah, cornucopia. 

Sonny Vu: This is not the case, you know, polymer, plastic and metal … very hard to compete against incumbent technologies. Now will those technologies be brought on shore, like will we be making forged metal factories and metal shaping factories, and plastic injection molded stuff in the United States? I don’t know, man. We’ll see. We’ll see. Hopefully, that’d be great to see some of that industry come back here. But I think we have to start with the high value stuff.

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Sonny Vu: Carbon fiber composites, that’s where — because if you’re paying hundreds of dollars per kilogram, thousands of dollars per kilogram, it’s okay, you know, it makes sense to move it onshore. 

John Koetsier: It is really interesting— [crosstalk]. Sorry, go ahead. 

Sonny Vu: Oh, I was just saying, especially if you can get the cost down.

John Koetsier: Yep. Yep. It is really interesting to see that with the pandemic, you also have a very different perspective on globalization, on onshoring all that other stuff, because hey, countries want their own resources — whether that’s for medical production, whether that’s for other things, and the cost of a shipping container was like $1,000 a year ago and it’s now up to like $18,000, you know, trans-Pacific shipping container.

So it is having impacts in how we see national security, not just in terms of military might, but also industrial capability and production capability. There’s a lot to learn there about countries being self-sufficient in some sense, or at least mostly self-sufficient. 

Sonny Vu: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been talking about how supply security is really becoming a thing. Like we’re going to be talking about supply security in the coming weeks and months and probably years, because it’s not just pandemic stuff — it’s national rivalries and just a concern about like, hey, we need to be able to make our own stuff, you know? And that’s on top of all the shipping costs.

The other thing about Vietnam is, you know, Vietnam is a great trade partner with the United States. The taxes are very … Vietnam is not an ally in the native sense of the term, but definitely friendly, and so people are — there’s a lot of business coming to Vietnam. Unfortunately with the recent COVID outbreak, things have taken a bit of a pause, but that’s very temporary. That’s only … a month, two months, you know, we’ll be back on our feet fairly soon. Also very friendly with Europe — great trading partners with Europe and India. And so you’ve got a lot of that happening. 

John Koetsier: Good. So maybe we’ll end here. We see it in the news all the time, right? We’re 3D printing virtually everything. We’re 3D printing houses with concrete. We’re 3D printing cars with a variety of materials, boats as well. We saw a 3D printed bridge go in in a couple of different places, I think one in the Netherlands recently. 

Sonny Vu: Yep.

John Koetsier: It’s obviously not sort of standard operating procedure yet, but where do you see the state of the art in about maybe five years?

Sonny Vu: So, specialty materials in the short term for — because that’s where you can make them have the most savings — and then over time, with all of the different pressures that we’ve discussed … pandemic, supply, security, taxes, transportation costs, and all that stuff …  it has to happen. It has to happen.

But the onus is on our industry to make it affordable, because right now we’re not even close … in terms of affordability. We’re off by, I think, an order of magnitude. But fortunately it’s only like an order of magnitude and not three, okay. It used to be probably three orders, but now, one — that means within a generation of science and engineering we’ll get there.

So, in 10 years I think there’s a lot of stuff that’ll be additively manufactured. It’d be silly not to. But it’s not in two years.

John Koetsier: And that could be really interesting actually, right? Because theoretically, and the devil’s in the details, but theoretically, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, can be much more environmentally friendly as well, right? I mean, you’re talking less waste. You may be talking less energy. You may be talking fewer numbers of materials you need to get out and source and put together in expensive and potentially dirty processes and all that stuff. You’re talking a pretty kind of one step there you go, correct?

Sonny Vu: It’s all of what you’ve said, and on top of that, it’s just less waste. You know, you only print what you need. You can’t imagine how many millions of square feet are out there housing parts just sitting around. I mean, people try to optimize and whatnot, but at the end of the day, there’s just a lot of stuff sitting around in warehouses waiting to be used, and a lot of that actually never gets used. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. Sonny, thank you so much for your time. 

Sonny Vu: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

You read a lot?

Made it all the way down here? Wow!

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