Arthur Chait wants to bring the printing revolution to manufacturing and, in the process, print away complexity. The former Selectron executive is the CEO of EoPlex, a startup backed by Draper Fisher Jurvetson which has figured out a way to print small parts in mass production from the size of a poppy seed to a deck of cards.
When he came by my office earlier today, he pulled plastic sample cases out of his bag filled with an array of tiny mechanical devices, gears, heat-sinks, and other parts. Then he showed me a small, white ceramic square not much bigger than a cell-phone battery. It was a prototype for a fully-functioning tiny chemical plant that could turn alcohol into hydrogen for fuel cells. Inside were 33 different cavities, pipes, and chambers made out of five different materials, printed one layer at a time. The final part was made of 300 layers. "Complexity, for the first time in history, is free," declares Chait. In volume, he thinks he can make such hydrogen reformers for about $40 a pop.
EoPlex can take any CAD design for complex, small, three-dimensional parts that would be too difficult to otherwise manufacture, and print it. It slices the object to be manufactured into hundreds of layers much like a CT scan does to your body, then reassembles it by printing the layers one at a time and burning away the parts it does not need. Chait says that EoPlex can make parts out of combinations of ceramic, metal, and many other materials. (The trick is to bind the material as a powder to a polymer ink). He showed me a tiny, hollow, hermetically-sealed, steel pillow no bigger than a thimble that his engineers were able to print.
Chait expects to move into full production trials next year with several customers. His first products will be that fuel-cell reformer (for a mobile charger for emergency radios), a smaller pressure sensor for car tires, and a microreactor aimed at chemical and pharamacuetical companies. Instead of making chemicals or drugs in large vats, the idea is to instead gang up hundreds of micro-reactors like servers in a server farm. Since the chemcials are forced through micropores, the reactions should require less energy and create cleaner chemcial plants. And if there were an explosion, it wouldn't take out the whole plant. Chemical micro-reactors today made by Siemens and others can cost thousands of dollars apiece. Chait says he can make a micro-reactor for about $150.
What's really disruptive about this approach is that it costs no more to print a complex object than it does a simple one, just as it costs no more for a newspaper to print simple words than an elaborate illustration. And if you want to change the design—add a gear here, a chamber there—virtually no retooling is required. Just alter the CAD file, make some new screens or masks, and print out a new part.