Additive Components 62996fe5d2dc8

Additive's New Material World: Higher Volumes, More Talent

June 3, 2022
The technology is changing in a hurry, allowing for more mass production.

Additive manufacturing in large-scale manufacturing industries is experiencing tremendous growth. Its value is evident in the industry's annual growth rate of 19.5% in 2021, an increase from the 7.5% growth in 2020, according to Wohler’s Report 2022

According to a recent paper from the World Economic Forum, "An Additive Manufacturing Breakthrough: a How-To Guide for Scaling and Overcoming Key Challenges," industry advancements in novel AM materials will play a significant role in continuing this growth.

In fact, the WEF notes that the lack of a breadth of durable, application-specific materials has historically been a growth inhibitor for the industry. That’s changing in a hurry as new 3D printing technologies grow the potential universe of materials and the world’s largest chemical companies begin shifting their considerable R&D resources towards additive manufacturing applications.

Historically, most 3D printing processes, particularly for manufacturing, were either extrusion-based or laser-based. With increased digitization, such as with powder-based fusion and programmable polymerization, we can now measure and manage processes to a much greater degree. For example, with laser-based systems, we can digitally manage raising and lowering the intensity of the infrared lamps and the length of time powder is exposed to heat, all the while continuously measuring how that powder is reacting with the infrared camera in the system. The end result is the systems are more quickly programmed and calibrated for the requirements of new materials, thus more materials are coming to market more quickly.

There has simply been a shortage of material scientists focused on 3D printing materials. Most of the materials printed today are existing materials that have been adapted to 3D printing processes over many years. Now, however, a shift towards higher-volume manufacturing applications combined with the new digital 3D printing processes has ignited the interest of companies—for instance, BASF and Henkel. Suddenly, the industry goes from handfuls of chemists to thousands of them. It’s no wonder we’re seeing accelerating material innovations. 

The result is a proliferation of innovative new materials that reduce costs and improve part performance for industries as varied as automotive, aerospace and medical. Here are some of the most exciting developments:

Manufacturing Tooling and Parts

Manufacturing aids such as tooling are already seeing a rapid shift towards 3D printing—increasing assembly line adaptability and uptime and improving ergonomics for workers that previously used heavier, metal-based tools, jigs and fixtures. With composite materials such as Nylon 12 (PA12) carbon fiber, additive manufacturing can 3D print the necessary tools for production on demand and on site when needed. Boom Supersonic, for example, used 3D printers to create a drilling tool with heat-resistant, rigid carbon fibers and resins that offer sufficient strength and precision to support the drilling process for its supersonic test plane, the XB-1. For less demanding jigs and fixtures applications, more traditional Nylon 12 formulations are often used. In fact, PA12 is the most common material by ton in 3D printing today.

Another material getting a growing look is PA11, which is a sustainable nylon material derived from castor bean oil. In many ways, its mechanical properties are superior to PA12, making it ideal for 3D printing spare parts for manufacturing equipment and other high-impact applications in other industries like medical braces or insoles, or certain electronics applications. 

Materials for Full-Scale Automotive Manufacturing 

For years, additive’s role within the automotive industry was used mainly for prototyping parts, since materials were not durable or long-lasting. However, with advances in long-lasting thermoplastic materials, 3D printing can now speed manufacturing processes and eliminate supply chain issues while lowering costs for parts like side mirror housings and mounting brackets. 

For example, polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, is a popular powder used in the automotive industry due to its flexibility to form different parts. With its heat resistance and durability, polypropylene has been used in gas cans, car bumpers and other vehicle parts. In addition, as it’s a low-density material, carmakers can manufacture parts with the same or better physical properties with less material and weight. Polypropylene has been a challenging material for 3D printers, but new advances in powder-bed fusion technologies are changing that. AMPower 2022 Additive Manufacturing Market Report predicts that the use of polypropylene in industrial AM will grow from 171 tons in 2021 to 719 tons in 2026. 

Soaring in Aerospace

With 3D printing's growing material capabilities, the aerospace industry benefits significantly given the low-volume but high-value nature of aerospace manufacturing. For example, ULTEM 9085, a polyether material, allows manufacturers to develop quality parts for plane interiors, such as beverage carts, lavatories, side panels and partitions. It meets critical FST (flame, smoke, toxicity) requirements, with durable physical properties. In fact, most commercial airplanes now include 3D printed parts with the material.

A newer filament for FDM 3D printing is Antero 840CN03, a high-performance semi-crystalline thermoplastic. It’s highly heat- and fatigue-resistant and maintains its stiffness over a wide temperature range. These materials work well for enclosures, casings, covers, and cooling and heating ducts. Its chemical resistance enables it to be used in places where ULTEM cannot, and it can also provide electrostatic-discharge (ESD) properties where static electricity may be a problem. Major aerospace and space companies are now beginning to certify its use. Related industries like rail transportation are also adopting these materials.

While not as widely adopted yet, innovations in photopolymer resins have also been accelerating for aerospace, which can be valuable where higher volumes or greater printing precision are needed. For example, LOCTITE 3955 is an fast-transfer (FST) -capable resin suitable for both aerospace and rail applications, such as electrical connectors. Many of these resins can be quickly formulated for very specific custom industry applications. 

Future Development 

We are witnessing the need and value for additive manufacturing across multiple industries. With the past two years showing the fragility of traditional supply chains, 75% of supply chain executives reported significant disruptions due to the pandemic positioning AM to provide benefits and improvements over traditional methods. 

With the growing collaboration between material companies such as Covestro, BASF and Henkel, and 3D printing companies such as Stratasys, the AM industry is ready to meet the demands of full-scale manufacturing by providing more functional designs and lower costs. In the future, we may even be able to mix and print custom materials within a single part based on part geometry. Imagine, for instance, adding more carbon fiber to sections of a part needing more strength, while other sections get more flexibility, all managed at a digital voxel level. Thus, new materials combine with new 3D printing techniques to create new parts and applications to grow additive manufacturing.  

Pat Carey is senior vice president of Strategic Growth at Stratasys

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