3D Printing and the Chemicals Industry

I recently had a chance to participate in a very interesting discussion about the 3D printing and how it affects the chemicals industry.  Part of an SAP series about the future of manufacturing,  the “Coffee Break with Game Changers” internet talk radio series is hosted by the energetic and talented Bonnie D. Graham.

Here’s the set-up:

“Basically any material you can squeeze, melt or generate into a powder, you can print.” (Hod Lipson)  When Chuck Hull developed stereolithography, a manufacturing method we know as 3D printing, he predicted it wouldn’t be used in the home for another 25-30 years. He was spot-on! Today, due to lower costs, higher speed and a variety of materials, 3D printing is found in homes as well as in many industries, including chemicals and related downstream industries.

I joined Frank Jenner from EY and Stefan Guertzgen from SAP on the show.   We covered quite a bit of ground (you can listen to the show here), but here are a couple points:

Adoption of 3D printing is growing rapidly and mainly driven by three key factors.

  • The cost of 3D printing is rapidly decreasing because of lower raw material costs, stronger competitive pressures and technological advancements.
  • Printing speeds are increasing. For example, last year, startup company Carbon3D printed a palm-sized geodesic sphere in a little more than 6 minutes, which is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing solutions.
  • New 3D printers have the ability to accommodate a wider variety of materials. Driven by innovations within the chemical industry, a broad range of polymers, resins, plasticizers and other materials are being used to create new 3D products.

Innovative Feedstocks & Processes

3D printing provides a vast opportunity for the chemical industry to develop innovative feedstock and drive new revenue streams. While more than 3,000 materials are used in conventional component manufacturing, only about 30 are available for 3D printing. To put this into perspective, the market for chemical powder materials is predicted to be more than $630 million annually by 2020.

Plastics and resins as well as metal powders or ceramic materials are already in use or under evaluation for the printing of prototypes, parts of industry assets or semi-finished goods, in particular those that are complex to produce and only required in small batch sizes. Developing the right formulas to create these new materials is an area of constant innovation within the chemical field, which will likely produce even more materials in the future. For example Covestro, a developer of polymer technology, is developing a range of filaments, powders and liquid resins for all common 3D printing methods, 3M, together with its subsidiary Dyneon, recently filed a patent for using fluorinated polymers in 3D printing, and Wacker is testing 3D printing with silicones.

The chemical industry is also in the driver seat when it comes to process development. About 20 different processes exist that have one common characteristic – layered deposition of printer feed. The final product could be generated from melting thermoplastic resins (for example, laser sinter technology or fused deposition modeling) or via (photo) chemical reaction such as stereo-lithography or multi-jet modeling. For both process types, the physical and chemical properties of feed materials are critical success factors for processing and for the quality of the finished product.

Leaps in Technology

When we discuss leaps in technology, many times it’s with respect to materials: Stone age, bronze age, iron age, etc.  It is the materials we use, and their capabilities, that allows us to build everything from microchips to skyscrapers.  Until recently we have been in the “stone age” of additive manufacturing, in the sense that we lacked materials that provided engineers with the characteristics they needed to elevate 3D printing beyond prototyping.

You can’t build a skyscraper out of wood or bricks and you can’t replicate most molded plastic parts with early generation 3DS materials.  This is something people overlooked during the initial hype of 3D printing, and a factor people need to realize when we talk about the potential growth of the technology.  Unless you’re a plastics engineer on the cutting edge of a breakthrough, there is really no way of predicting when the next generation of plastics will hit the market.  But it’s safe to say that these advances will have significant effect on the type and amount of material being consumed.

Material selection and capability will be responsible for determining how well certain 3DS business models will perform.  Using a 3D printer to replace failed components in a factory becomes more viable the more materials available to use as substitutes.   Likewise, the amount of material characteristics to choose from make UPS’s 3D printing store more capable of producing the products that customers need.  We understand perfectly well that additive manufacturing provides incredible flexibility for design shape, the hurdle is flexibility of material qualities.)

Chemical companies have recognized the need to be more customer-centric and work with end users to offer new services and provide value.  3D printing sky’s the limit – but it needs close cooperation between the manufacturers, the printer makers, and chemicals companies to succeed.