Executive Interview Series

INTERVIEW Camila Uzcategui, CEO and co-founder, Vitro3D: High Dimensionality Volumetric Additive Manufacturing

Ahead of Formnext 2023, 3D Printing Industry spoke to the winners of the Formnext Start-Up challenge.

Camila Uzcategui is the CEO and co-founder of Vitro3D. Her venture into 3D printing commenced from a desire to contribute to global healthcare significantly. Through her experiences in NGOs and nonprofits, she identified a glaring need for essential medical devices in health clinics, sowing the seeds for her exploration into additive manufacturing.

Uzcategui’s academic endeavor led her to a PhD in Material Science and Engineering, concentrating on 3D printing applications, which she accomplished in 2021. Her dissertation was centered on the characterization of materials for 3D printing aimed at tissue engineering and regeneration, understanding resins to predict the quality of 3D printing structures accurately. 

Uzcategui remarked, “If we are good at characterizing resins, then we can be even better at matching the mechanical properties of these particular types of tissues.”

But rather than work with more established 3D printing technology, Uzcategui’s company has gone towards volumetric 3D printing, or as they prefer to call it, Volumetric Additive Manufacturing. 

Prototype HD-VAM system at the Vitro3D lab in Boulder. Photo via Vitro3D.
Prototype HD-VAM system at the Vitro3D lab in Boulder. Photo via Vitro3D.

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Pioneering Volumetric Additive Manufacturing: Vitro3D’s Strategic Shift Towards Industry-Relevant Solutions

Volumetric additive manufacturing is a nascent yet promising facet of advanced manufacturing technology. While the traditional layer-by-layer 3D printing was the focus of Uzcategui’s Ph.D., the exploration into volumetric additive manufacturing came post-PhD during her post-doctoral work, spurred by its potential to surmount challenges like support structures and handling highly viscous resins. 

Uzcategui underscored the advantage of volumetric technology over conventional 3D printing methods, stating, “It was awesome to see what challenges that current layer-by-layer 3D printing could not overcome, while volumetric was like, ‘Oh, we’re not worried about that,’ like support structures, for example, or highly viscous resins.” This transition initially unfolded as more of a “passion project,” shifting from standard 3D printing to a technology that efficiently addresses these hurdles.

Regarding the strategic vision, Vitro3D was keen to avoid the typical deep tech startups’ dilemma of being “solutions looking for a problem.” Uzcategui expressed a proactive stance in identifying industries beyond healthcare that could benefit promptly from this technology, acknowledging that realizing the “big dream” of tissue engineering would be a long-term endeavor, likely spanning 5 to 10 years.

Vitro3D is now eyeing sectors like electronics and dentistry, where volumetric technology could significantly impact in the near term. This pragmatic approach aims at ensuring the company isn’t “raising money for 5 years without revenue” but engaging in meaningful, revenue-generating ventures that edge closer to their ultimate goal of revolutionizing tissue engineering and regeneration.

Vitro3D as an industrial process that can be either standalone, or as an integrated process. Image via Vitro3D.
Vitro3D as an industrial process that can be either a standalone or an integrated process. Image via Vitro3D.

The Intricacies of Volumetric Additive Manufacturing: A Deep Dive with Vitro3D’s CEO

Uzcategui described how volumetric 3D printing manipulates light from various angles to create a 3D object from a virtual model. Uzcategui highlighted, “The algorithm is the most important part because that is how we take a 3D virtual object and decompose it in these different angles, and then reproject it, to create a 3D object in the resin. That is all based on a complex algorithm, which generates the projected images.” It is crucial to account for material properties and the resin’s reaction to light, ensuring the resin receives the precise amount of light for polymerization. The software is the key that unlocks this capability.

Exploring the mechanism further, Uzcategui mentioned that Vitro3D invented a new high dimensionality volumetric additive manufacturing (HD VAM) method where a translating two-dimensional cone of light is utilized, thereby inputting four dimensions of information into the material as opposed to the conventional three. She noted, “We call it high dimensionality VAM because rather than just inputting three dimensions of information via rotation and a two-dimensional image, we’re putting four dimensions of information through translation in X and Y and a two-dimensional cone of light containing information.”

The light source, typically a laser, is crucial for maintaining high-quality light with a long focus, which is essential for projecting through the entire volume. Uzcategui stated, “We want our depth of focus to be as big as possible, starting with 3 cm.”

Addressing the size limitation inherent in volumetric 3D printing due to the depth dimension, Uzcategui detailed how the HD VAM method decouples dimensions, allowing for more extensive dimensions in X and Y while retaining a small dimension in depth. Vitro3D’s approach has an eye on broader industrial applications.

A render of the Vitro3D system producing personalized parts at an industrial scale. Image via Vitro3D.
A render of the Vitro3D system producing personalized parts at an industrial scale. Image via Vitro3D.

Scaling Volumetric Additive Manufacturing: Vitro3D’s Exploration into Larger Dimensions and Material Versatility

The company is making ongoing efforts to discern the maximum printing size possible with its technology. The current maximum stands at a diameter of eight centimeters, though Uzcategui hints at a tantalizing vision, “Could we have a cartridge the size of a desk rather than having a box? Could we have some sort of gantry system that can be installed in a manufacturing plant?”

This innovative approach aims to integrate the HD-VAM process seamlessly into existing manufacturing lines, potentially ushering in a new era of on-site, large-scale additive manufacturing. Central to this endeavor is their proprietary algorithm, described by Uzcategui as the “magic” behind their technology. This algorithm replicates the printing process before it commences, ensuring the resin polymerizes only where desired. Uzcategui explained, “The algorithm takes in information about the material, the optics, and the mechanics and simulates the printing process.” 

The conversation highlighted a significant advantage of volumetric 3D printing—its aptitude for handling highly viscous resins, a challenge for conventional layer-by-layer systems. In standard systems, resin flow for layer replenishment is a time-consuming bottleneck, particularly for highly viscous resins. However, Vitro3D’s technology bypasses this hurdle. Uzcategui elaborated, “Because no resin flows during the printing process, it’s just a static volume. We don’t care if the material is a solid. Regarding our viscosity limitations on the higher end, we haven’t found any so far because we’re not limited by material flow..”

Vitro3D’s pursuits reflect a compelling trajectory towards surmounting existing barriers in 3D printing technology, heralding a paradigm shift in how additive manufacturing integrates within traditional production environments.

Vitro3D Tackles Novel Material Challenges in 3D Printing

Certain resins crucial for electronic components and connectors present a viscosity challenge for traditional 3D printers. Uzcategui remarked on a particular case where a firm had to innovate around this challenge, “They had some success with their printer because they heat these viscous resins.” This example underscores the workaround necessitated by the limitations of existing layer-by-layer printing techniques when dealing with such materials.

Furthermore, Uzcategui highlighted the emergence of nano gels finding applications in the dental sector, which also presents a viscosity challenge. The viscosity increases with the nano gel loading, necessitating innovative processing methods to handle them efficiently.

Vitro3D’s HD-VAM technology emerges as a promising solution, aptly suited to process these innovative yet challenging materials without the need for additional heating or modified chambers, as required by some layer-by-layer printers.

The advantage manifests not only in the printing process itself, where volumetric printing materializes the object simultaneously, but extends to post-processing stages, often a bottleneck in the overall production timeline.

Uzcategui explained, “We have a huge advantage in speed because the part materializes at once, and you’re not going layer by layer, so a lot of the time, you’re cutting your speeds per part very significantly.” This speed enhancement is pivotal as it directly impacts the production lead time, a critical factor for industries aiming to reduce time-to-market.

Furthermore, she delved into the critical aspect of post-processing, highlighting that the absence of support structures in volumetric 3D printing significantly reduces the time spent on post-printing cleanup. She mentioned, “You’re printing without support structures or with very limited support structures in a different way that, layer by layer, 3D printing just can’t access.”

Uzcategui also touched on an essential point about ensuring quality and repeatability across parts, stating, “A huge focus of our company is to automate post-processing to get more reliable parts, not only in the printing but in the material properties themselves.” 

Vitro3D’s approach towards not just accelerating the printing process but also streamlining post-processing reflects a holistic understanding of industrial production needs. 

Cost Efficiency in Volumetric Additive Manufacturing: Vitro3D’s Software-Centric Approach

Vitro3D is gearing up to offer a cost-efficient approach to 3D printing, where the emphasis is not on expensive hardware but on intelligent software. Uzcategui explained that, unlike some 3D printing setups that could cost up to a million dollars, their system utilizes fairly standard hardware components similar to those used in traditional layer-by-layer 3D printers. The distinction lies in their proprietary algorithm, which drives the volumetric 3D printing process.

This software-centric approach, she suggests, not only keeps the hardware costs manageable but also allows for the development of custom hardware solutions tailored to the needs of their customers. Uzcategui adds, “We believe in an open resin system that allows customers to use their own materials in our HD-VAM system, where the material only needs to be certified by Vitro3D and added to the algorithm’s material library.” 

The main value proposition, as per Uzcategui, revolves around “providing software-based solutions” aimed at accelerating development in a manner that hardware alone can’t achieve. She added, “Our combination is more of a low-cost hardware,solution-based software approach, rather than trying to sell a piece of equipment for hundreds of thousands of dollars with service fees..”

The Challenges and Promise of Volumetric 3D Printing

The nascent stage of volumetric 3D printing has inherent limitations, especially in size and resolution, that prompt skepticism. Yet, Uzcategui is optimistic. She believes that despite these limitations, their HD-VAM volumetric 3D printing process holds a promise of solving significant challenges in certain industries, challenges that are beyond the reach of current 3D printers.

Uzcategui highlighted the growing restrictions on the use of ‘forever chemicals’ like PFAS and PFOA in Europe, restrictions she anticipates will soon be a global norm. She stated, “We can use highly viscous resins that can often have better material properties when it comes to toughness,” making volumetric 3D printing a likely candidate for creating alternatives to these chemicals.

One of the pivotal advantages of volumetric 3D printing, elucidated by Uzcategui, is the potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing steps. She illustrated this by referencing the creation of a simple electronic connector, explaining that currently, it requires multiple steps to encase metal with plastic. However, with volumetric 3D printing, one could “have a bunch of metal pieces inside of a cartridge, and then we can create a part around that metal,” eliminating several manufacturing steps, reducing waste, and potentially speeding up the iteration of new technology designs.

The discussion ventured into overprinting and overmolding, where volumetric 3D printing shines with its capability for creating high-value, high-mix, low-volume parts. Uzcategui sees this as a pathway to quickly iterate on new technologies without the hefty financial burden of tooling 

The intricacies of ensuring precise material behavior amidst a maelstrom of moving resin that’s constantly changing and shrinking demand a profound understanding and meticulous control of the light-material interaction. She highlights that the process is “dependent on understanding and crossing that gelation threshold,” indicating a razor-thin margin for error.

Noting the success of companies like Carbon, who have invested heavily in understanding how materials interact with light, Uzcategui underscores the elevated importance of this interaction in volumetric additive manufacturing. “In our case, we have a multidimensional process where the light-material interaction is even more important than layer-by-layer 3D printing,” she associated with standard manufacturing methods like injection molding.

With eyes set on commercialization, Vitro3D is on track to deploy its first off-site system next year and is in discussions with early adopters for pilot projects slated for late 2024. The startup’s journey toward commercialization is anchored in a collaborative ethos, aiming to work alongside industry players to craft solutions that address specific manufacturing hurdles.

As a fledgling startup, Vitro3D is also on a quest for industry talent and collaborative partnerships, a mission Uzcategui hopes to advance at the upcoming Formnext expo, one of Europe’s premier 3D printing events. There, she aims not only to showcase Vitro3D’s technology but also to forge connections in industries where their technology could resolve persistent manufacturing challenges.

Uzcategui sees the burgeoning interest and entry of other players in the volumetric 3D printing space as a testament to the technology’s growing legitimacy. She posited, “It’s awesome to see that there are other volumetric 3D printing companies out there and that we’re all solving challenges in very different ways. Not only does everybody have their own way of doing it, but we each have unique benefits.”

With a conviction that their tailored approach sets them apart in a competitive market, Vitro3D is inching closer to its goal of being a disruptive force in industrial technology, meeting customers exactly where their challenges lie.

Make sure to visit  Vitro3D during Formnext 2023; find them in Hall 11.1 at booth B55C.

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Featured image shows a prototype HD-VAM system at the Vitro3D lab in Boulder. Photo via Vitro3D.