After nearly 30 years in the 3D printing industry, Jim Bredt has already left a significant, commercial imprint on the field, yet his work on the industrial side of the business is just powering up.
A Ph.D. mechanical engineer from MIT, Bredt is best known as a co-founder of Z Corp., which launched in 1994 and had amassed one-fourth of the 3D printing market share before it was acquired by 3D Systems in 2012. That company used an early 3D printing process in which gypsum powder was bound together by a liquid binder dispersed through an inkjet head.
However, Bredt also was a key player in several 3D printing industry firsts and turning points, helping to lead the industry transition from geeky R&D science to real-world applications.
As a graduate student at MIT, for example, Bredt worked on Prof. Ely Sachs’ first prototype machines that did inkjet printing on powder, and he and Tim Anderson, another of Z Corp.’s eventual co-founders, developed the first material sets for the machines.
“We simply went to the grocery store and started pulling things out that looked like they might be soluble powders,” he explained. “Our very first material was actually Sweet ‘N Low.”
In 1995, as he worked through several generations of that inkjet printer, Bredt was part of the small MIT team that first coined the term “3D printing” to describe what this new additive manufacturing technology was all about. In 1999, Bredt also co-developed the 3D printing industry’s first full-color 3D printing process, a process he described as simple in theory and challenging in practice. “Color was very rich in bugs,” Bredt recalls, “which is why I tell people, ‘Yes, I know how to do color and now that I’ve done it, I’m not actually in a big hurry to do it again.’“
As with so many things in 3D printing, “There are a lot of tricks to it that we only discovered along the way,” Bredt explained, which is why experience matters so much in 3D printing.
Today, Bredt is as passionate about 3D printing as ever and currently serves as Research and Development Director at Viridis3D, which he co-founded in the Greater Boston area in 2010 to do large-scale industrial 3D printing with robots using funds from the sale of his Z Corp. shares.
In 2016, Viridis3D partnered with EnvisionTEC, which is now the world’s third largest 3D printer maker for industrial systems, according to the Wohlers Report 2017. The relationship has given Viridis3D more R&D support to scale up the technology for commercial launch and even more applications.
Later that year, Viridis3D commercialized the first robotic 3D printer, the RAM 123. It uses a standard robot from ABB equipped with a proprietary print head, which comes in two sizes, 28- or 38-inch. The robot arm with the print head moves over a stationary work table in an open environment (outside of a box) to binder jet a powder – currently sand — into final objects. The technology also uses proprietary software to control the spreading of the powder and placement of the binder through the printheads.
Today, that Robotic Additive Manufacturing system, which is called RAM, is in use in several foundries, such as Hazelton Casting Co. in eastern Pennsylvania, where it is printing fast and affordable sand molds and cores for metalcasting. RAM now comes in four build envelope sizes, up to 3’ x 3’ x 6’ with the RAM 336, but the industrial technology is about to branch out to even more powder materials with a high-definition model that prints investment casting patterns in 300 dpi resolution.
When Bredt first decided to develop a robotic 3D printer in 2010, he did it with the wisdom of 20 years of experience in developing commercial additive manufacturing solutions.
“I’ve made a long career of making this look a lot easier than it really is,” joked Bredt, a colorful scientist who grew up as a child around NASA, where his physicist father was an administrator.
Bredt likes to emphasize that 3D printing is very challenging multidisciplinary work, especially if you want to deliver a real commercial product that works for customers who demand high quality and repeatability.
“You have to be a real geek,” Bredt said. “I’m a real geek for material science … this is not for the squeamish. I’ve always been interested in metalcasting and durable manufacturing ceramics.”
Removing some of those multidisciplinary challenges, or simplifying the approach, has been one of the key lessons that Bredt has learned over the years.
So, when contemplating large industrial 3D printing, Bredt knew he didn’t want to have a movable build table, which is used by so many 3D printing systems. That’s because industrial parts get quite heavy as they are built and he didn’t want to add extra expensive and complicated motion control requirements to the process.
Using existing industrial robotic systems allowed Bredt to build on a stationary worktable and didn’t require him to be an expert in motion control, which he is not. “When we did the research, it showed that the robots are plenty accurate for what we want it to do and they weren’t even that expensive,” Bredt said.
He took the same modular approach to his print heads, using commercially available components.
Then, he and a small team focused all of their attention on integrating the components through proprietary software and material development, which, like most things in 3D printing, is challenging enough. That way, Bredt explained, “we could focus on the printing engine, focus all of our attention on the printing and materials, which are the things we are actually good at.”
One of the reasons Bredt is so enthusiastic about the RAM system is that it’s a completely scalable solution, which can be easily transformed into custom sizes with little additional configuration and it also holds the potential to bind a variety of materials together.
“A lot of people who develop 3D printing will select a material that they want to 3D print and then try to build a printer that will actually fabricate the material, and that’s a really, really, really difficult project,” Bredt said. “We built a 3D printer that was essentially the best machine we could build using the technology that was available.”
Now, that approach has the ability to print different materials in addition to sand powders, such as materials like PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate) and ceramics.
Ultimately, the technology holds the potential to transform the way the largest parts are manufactured for OEMs who make airplanes, tractors and cars.
“It’s industrial 3D printing that’s going to be taking off in the next decade,” Bredt explained. “This machine because of its versatility will allow us to capture a whole mess of different applications. … Right now, people who are machining parts laboriously or making patterns for castings, 10 years from now, it will be a dim memory after they start 3D printing these things with fully automated digital manufacturing processes.”