Bringing cutting-edge 3D printing to Berkeley

The new printer in Jacobs Hall’s advanced prototyping lab.

Jacobs Hall, Berkeley’s hub for design innovation, welcomed a new addition this spring: an M1 3D printer from Bay Area company Carbon, which takes a new, photochemical approach to additive manufacturing. The M1 arrived at Jacobs Hall in May, joining other high-end 3D printers in the building’s advanced prototyping lab.

The printer’s arrival — which makes Berkeley just the third university in the nation to have one of these machines — was made possible by a gift from the Eustace-Kwan Family Foundation, the philanthropy of Berkeley alumna and trustee Kathy Kwan and her husband, former Google SVP of Knowledge Alan Eustace. According to experts in the 3D-printing space, Carbon’s innovative technology could redefine what’s possible in additive manufacturing. Kwan and Eustace know something about redefining the possible, too: Kwan first learned about Carbon when its founder gave a TED talk at the same conference at which Eustace spoke about his record-breaking skydive from the stratosphere. In connecting Carbon’s brand-new technology with Berkeley’s rich academic ecosystem, Kwan and Eustace saw an opportunity to expand the toolkit for students and researchers working on pressing issues. “My hope, especially after seeing the Jacobs Institute,” says Kwan, “is that this printer will further advance Cal’s ability to design and prototype cutting-edge solutions to some of today’s challenges and problems.”

What makes Carbon’s technology different? The answer involves speed, materials, and a photochemical process called “Continuous Liquid Interface Production” (CLIP). Unlike other 3D printers, which build up objects layer by layer, the M1 builds solid objects from a pool of liquid resin by continuously projecting light. By curing the resin through this continuous light projection, the process avoids creating the tiny gaps left by layer-based printing processes — creating more durable objects in a fraction of the time needed for other printing processes. With CLIP, along with a series of novel materials it has developed with real-world functions in mind and has introduced in connection with the M1, Carbon aims to harness expertise across disciplines — from chemistry to software engineering — to “bridge the gap between prototyping and manufacturing.”

To date, Carbon has worked with companies like Ford and Johnson & Johnson, which have been experimenting with potential high-impact manufacturing applications, such as car production and building custom surgical devices. For Jacobs Hall design specialist Chris Parsell, the opportunity to apply this technology in a university setting is particularly exciting. To start with, he says, the new materials could help student teams take on timely engineering challenges, particularly as they move from rapid-prototyping in Jacobs Hall’s makerspaces to fabricating functional, durable project components. “These machines are designed for finished product creation, not just prototyping,” explains Joey Gottbrath, the Jacobs Institute’s technical lab lead. For students aiming to develop and build solutions for real-world problems, this could open a wealth of new possibilities.

Furthermore, Parsell adds that the printer and its accompanying materials — Gottbrath says the M1 “easily triples our materials capabilities at Jacobs” — could spark breakthroughs from students and faculty in a range of fields. Parsell spends much of his time working alongside lab users, whose interests range from solar vehicle design to microfluidics. He explains that the ability to work with a broader variety of materials, like new elastomers and other novel types of polymers, opens the lab up to new uses by this diverse academic community. “[New applications of 3D printing technology],” he says, “get associated with different types of research and different mindsets.”

Jacobs Hall design specialist Chris Parsell with a print.

That’s a welcome thought at a place like the Jacobs Institute, a space for design across disciplines. With a community that includes students exploring subjects from bioengineering to mechanical engineering, the growing advanced prototyping lab could become a site for innovation in areas like medical device design, small-scale manufacturing, and more. Parsell is currently developing training modules to get students up and running on the M1. As part of this preparation, he’s been experimenting with the machine’s quirks and capabilities, “trying to push what the material and the printer can do in different directions.” He’s looking forward to continuing to try new things alongside lab users, from undergraduates developing novel products to researchers investigating new frontiers in their disciplines.

Gottbrath, the technical lab lead, envisions the new printer helping to further the Jacobs Institute’s role as “an open creative community with access to cutting-edge fabrication machinery.” Particularly for students, spaces like the advanced prototyping lab offer a unique opportunity to simultaneously develop new ideas and build skills on high-level equipment. “You don’t find these tools in every shop,” remarks Parsell, highlighting the institute’s role at the intersection of design methodology and pioneering technology. As Jacobs Hall continues to incorporate new technologies, its team — and forward-looking supporters like Kwan and Eustace — hope that its impact will radiate outward across the campus, empowering a cross-disciplinary community to connect creative new ideas with the tools to build them into realities.

By Laura Mitchell