Traditional Plastics Suppliers Enabling Broader Use of Additive Manufacturing
Applying proven capabilities in product development, design and processing to open additional applications for AM.
Additive manufacturing (AM) continues to grow by creating value for customers through its ability to offer personalized, complex parts with the inherent benefit of eliminating traditional production tooling.
To efficiently expand AM beyond its current base of highly customized, low-volume applications into other adjacent spaces, advancements in material technology, availability of robust design data and industry-specific expertise will be required.
Contributions in these areas from across the AM value chain will be necessary to deliver improved part performance and production efficiencies to enable broader adoption. As the industry continues to evolve, there has been a noticeable trend across the value chain toward increased involvement from traditional materials suppliers to address these needs.
Role of Major Plastics Suppliers
Traditional plastics suppliers are engaging with companies throughout the value chain to make available new material formulations for different additive manufacturing technologies. They are also providing material data for design and simulation software that will enable designers to improve part performance and consistency in additive manufacturing processes.
Additionally, plastics suppliers are drawing upon decades of expertise in product development, application development and processing to target new opportunities for additive manufacturing across many industries. For these reasons, the increased engagement of materials suppliers across the AM value chain offers the promise of expanding available application spaces across multiple markets.
Large materials companies are now beginning to supply their own additive manufacturing product data to populate design databases and simulation tools, and to help quantify variations in additive manufacturing methods.
Trend #1: Development of New Materials
According to the Wohlers Report 2018, in 2017, an estimated $1.13 billion was spent on materials for all AM systems worldwide, including both industrial systems and desktop 3D printers. This represents an increase of 25.5 percent over the $903.0 million spent in 2016. While these statistics include all types of materials, not just plastics, there is a strong trend towards growth.
However, until now only a small percentage of these materials have been designed for additive manufacturing. This is changing with the involvement of major plastics suppliers that possess the expertise to tailor materials to this production process.
Previously, plastics that were originally developed for other conversion processes, such as injection molding, were often “dropped in” to additive manufacturing due to a lack of specially designed materials. However, this approach can result in suboptimal part performance as the materials are not designed for use in the unique thermal, pressure, and chemical environments associated with specific additive manufacturing processes.
Leading materials suppliers are now investing in the development of new, differentiated products for specific production methods and end-use environments. Materials designed for additive manufacturing processes that deliver unique functional characteristics are becoming more common and provide OEMs with solutions that enable high-quality part production. Examples of specialized polymer materials include polycarbonate (PC) powders tailored for selective laser sintering (SLS) with good mechanical properties and high part densities, and PC copolymer filaments that deliver high toughness and strength for potential use in demanding aerospace, consumer electronics and automotive applications.
To improve the interlayer adhesion and z-strength of fused deposition modeling parts, a large plastics company is partnering with an equipment maker to apply their technology to a wide range of materials. This technology is based on an electric welding process that uses filament coated with energy-responsive carbon nanotubes, which is printed through a conductive extruder.
Materials suppliers are also applying their expertise to find creative ways to improve production efficiencies. One company is working to lower the total cost of SLS produced polyaryletherketone (PAEK) parts by introducing a new AM grade that is processed at lower temperatures and provides significantly higher recycle rates than the incumbent grade. To expand and optimize the use of existing machinery, another materials manufacturer has developed a polyamide-6 powder that processes at the lower temperatures most commonly used on today’s SLS equipment, thereby eliminating the need for a high-temperature printer.
Trend #2: Data Generation and Application
AM processes can be prone to part variability from a number of factors, including differences in feedstock quality, temperature gradients within build chambers and machine-to-machine consistency, among others.
Designers need reliable data and simulations to optimize their designs to achieve a high level of confidence and consistency. Current data and traditional design rules generated by other manufacturing processes do not necessarily apply to additive manufacturing. This can lead to over-engineering of printed parts or failure to take advantage of opportunities to incorporate functionality into parts or improve on design for manufacturability.
The AM industry has already taken steps to address this need. For example, in an independent activity funded in part by America Makes, a public-private partnership for additive manufacturing, several organizations are jointly defining a complete material property database for an amorphous polyetherimide (PEI) resin available for fused deposition modeling. The outcome of this project will be to provide designers and part manufacturers with tools that may be used to improve part performance and reliability.
Similarly, large materials companies are now beginning to supply their own AM product data to populate design databases and simulation tools, and to help quantify variations in additive manufacturing methods. For instance, one company’s polyetheretherketone (PEEK) filament for fused deposition modeling is being included in simulation software to help designers and engineers accurately predict warpage and residual stresses.
Trend #3: Vertical Industry Adoption
A wider selection of tailored materials and greater availability of performance data should help influence more industry sectors to use additive manufacturing. Traditional material suppliers can support adoption in other ways, as well.
Their understanding of complex regulatory codes from regulators such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and their experience with application-specific testing protocols, such as those for flammability and chemical compatibility, provide a common foundation for product selection and application development with material specifiers. This, coupled with their knowledge of industry-specific value chains and service requirements, provides valuable expertise that can be applied to accelerate the expansion of AM into new market segments.
A wider selection of tailored materials and greater availability of performance data should help influence more industry sectors to use additive manufacturing, as in the case of this healthcare sterilization tray.
Finally, in order to be as responsive as possible to customer needs, many of these companies organize their business units around vertical markets. With industry-centric assets and organizational structures in place, they are in a favorable position to broadly support OEMs.
In addition to contributing new products, material design data, and industry-specific application expertise, materials suppliers are expanding their involvement along the additive manufacturing value chain. To support end users, some suppliers are evolving from simply providing raw materials to producing new product forms, such as filaments and SLS powders. Others are acquiring or partnering with companies to gain access to additive manufacturing production capacity, cutting-edge equipment or specialized expertise.
The increasing role of material suppliers provides the potential for quality improvements, surety of material supply, formulation control and other benefits that will help advance the use of additive manufacturing technologies and meet OEM expectations.
Many elements must continue to come together to accelerate a disruptive new technology into the mainstream. For additive manufacturing, these elements include specialized materials and equipment, reliable and predictable part performance supported by data, and solutions tailored to the needs of an expanded set of application spaces. To help propel this technology forward, large materials suppliers are investing in new formulations and printable forms, data-based tools and methodologies, and strategic projects and partnerships.
Working together with equipment manufacturers, large-scale contract manufacturers and vertical industries, material suppliers are making strides toward improving the overall business case for expanding the use of additive manufacturing.