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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Making the Impossible Possible

July 6th, 2017 by Jeff Rowe

An impossible object is a type of optical illusion. It consists of a two-dimensional figure that is instantly and subconsciously interpreted by the visual system as representing a projection of a three-dimensional object.

In most cases the impossibility becomes apparent after viewing the figure for a few seconds. However, the initial impression of a 3D object remains even after it has been contradicted. There are also more subtle examples of impossible objects where the impossibility does not become apparent spontaneously and it is necessary to consciously examine the geometry of the implied object to determine that it is impossible.

The unsettling nature of impossible objects occurs because of our natural tendency to interpret 2D drawings as 3D objects. With an impossible object, looking at different parts of the object makes one reassess the 3D nature of the object, which confuses the mind.

Although possible to represent in two dimensions, it is not geometrically possible for such an object to exist in the physical world. However, some models of impossible objects have been constructed, such that when they are viewed from a very specific point, the illusion is maintained. Rotating the object or changing the viewpoint breaks the illusion, and therefore many of these models rely on forced perspective or having parts of the model appearing to be further or closer than they actually are.

Below is the Penrose triangle (an impossible object) that was first created by the Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvärd in 1934. The mathematician Roger Penrose independently devised and popularized it in the 1950s, describing it as “impossibility in its purest form.”

A 3D-printed version of the Reutersvärd Triangle illusion, its appearance created by a forced perspective.

So what does all this have to do with MCADCafe?

In May at the RAPID + TCT 2017 event I saw a lot of new additive manufacturing technologies presented by companies I was just getting acquainted with. One of the companies that intrigued me (if for nothing else but the name) was Impossible Objects.

Founded in 2009 and based in Northbrook, IL, at RAPID the company announced the launch of Model One, its pilot 3D printing machine for high-volume manufacturing. Its initial pilot program members, include Jabil and some Fortune 500 customers.

While many 3D printing companies have focused on producing prototypes made of plastics or metal, the Model One is designed to 3D print functional parts, at scale, using a wide selection of materials. Impossible Objects’ composite-based additive manufacturing (CBAM) method enables companies to use a range of composite materials, including carbon fiber, Kevlar, and fiberglass together with PEEK, and other high-performance polymers, to build strong lightweight parts.

Impossible Objects Model One 3D Printer

“We’ve seen tremendous interest from a range of companies who want the advantages of 3D printing for their high-volume manufacturing and for materials they cannot get elsewhere,” said Robert Swartz, chairman and founder of Impossible Objects. “Until now, there was no way to print functional parts with the mechanical and material properties at the scale these companies need. The Model One is just the beginning of what CBAM can do. Our CBAM technology has the potential to transform manufacturing as we know it.”

The Model One will accommodate the entire manufacturing process, from prototyping to high-volume production, allowing businesses to:

  • Create Stronger Parts: Through Impossible Object’s unique process, Model One is able to create parts that can be up to 10x stronger than competing 3D printers and materials.
  • Use a range of high-quality materials: Through a greater amount of material options, Impossible Objects enables companies to build fully functional parts, from high-performance materials such as PEEK and carbon fiber. Because of the composite makeup, customers will be able to customize part applications, whether to have heat and/or chemical resistant properties, stiffness or flexibility, or other attributes.
  • Power 3D printing at scale: With faster build speeds than other additive manufacturing technologies and traditional composite lay-up techniques, Impossible Objects has the potential to enable companies to build parts at production speeds 100x faster than current methods. Users also can use the same part for prototyping and mass production.

Impossible Objects Composite Based Additive Manufacturing (CBAM) Overview

“Based on its combination of speed, strength and material sets, we believe Impossible Objects’ CBAM could become an enabling technology for high-volume manufacturing,” said Greg Ojeda, senior director of AM Ecosystem Development and Strategy at Jabil. “We’ve identified applications where Impossible Objects could deliver a competitive advantage and significant cost savings over conventional manufacturing processes. We are excited to take part in Impossible Objects’ pilot program and look forward to working with the Impossible Objects’ team.”

The Model One will become generally available to the public by early 2018.

“We’re excited to take this next step toward providing a tangible solution for the largest manufacturing opportunities that businesses have,” said Larry Kaplan, CEO of Impossible Objects. “With our deep expertise in additive manufacturing, we’re committed to finding the fastest, most efficient ways possible to produce the most vital and complex parts from all types of materials.”

According to the company, its CBAM process is the first truly new 3D printing process in over 20 years. Conventional thermal inkjet heads are used to “print” designs on sheets of composites, such as carbon fiber, Kevlar, or fiberglass. Each sheet is then flooded with a polymer powder, such as nylon or PEEK, causing the powder to stick where inkjet fluid has been deposited on the sheets. Excess powder is vacuumed off and the sheets are stacked, compressed and heated. The polymer powder melts and bonds the sheets together. The uncoated fibers are then mechanically or chemically removed, and what remains is an exceptionally durable, lightweight object that was previously impossible to make so quickly and inexpensively.

How CBAM Works

Impossible Objects’ Model One 3D printer was named the winner of the RAPID + TCT Innovation Award for 2017. Exhibiting its Model One printer for the first time, Impossible Objects beat out dozens of other 3D printing companies who showcased their products at RAPID.

The RAPID + TCT Innovation Award recognizes the new product or service exhibited that will have the most impact on the industry. A committee made of up members of SME, a society of manufacturing professionals, and independent industry experts served as judges and determined Impossible Objects’ technology to be the most innovative.

“It is good to see Impossible Objects commercialize its machine,” said Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm focused on additive manufacturing (AM). “The product contributes favorably to the availability of options for composite parts made by AM.”

Will Impossible Objects’ CBAM ultimately compete with injection molding as the company claims? That sounds like a bit of a stretch at this time, but what now seems impossible might indeed one day become possible.

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One Response to “Making the Impossible Possible”

  1. Mark Guthrie says:

    Really great article Jeff. The breakthroughs in AM astound me, almost on a daily basis.

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