3D Printing Is Evolving From A Niche Process To High-Volume Manufacturing Technology

3D Printing Is Evolving From A Niche Process To High-Volume Manufacturing Technology

Where traditional forming processes meet their limitations, additive processes–also known as 3D Printing–pick up the slack: on the basis of a digital three-dimensional blueprint, material is applied in layers on a base surface. After each application the surface is lowered by a fraction of a millimeter and another layer is added. Very soon a three-dimensional structure is produced that corresponds exactly to the digital specification—with no need for special molds or extensive post-processing.

Plastics are durable, easily fusible, offer many possibilities with their properties, and are ideally suited for this cutting-edge technology. With polyamide 12 (PA12), Evonik is one of the world’s leading suppliers of powders for 3D printing having delivered the first polymer powders for additive manufacturing as early as 1996, setting standards for plastic materials that are still valid today. With a variety of innovative high-performance materials ranging from reinforced to flame-retardant and elastic materials, we are bringing the 3D printing industry a decisive step closer to series production.

Many people think 3D printing is a competitor to well established processes like injection molding. This simplistic approach does not factor the many possibilities this technology allows and will likely not be successful. If it is to be widely adopted, it needs to find its market space where its makes sense. It enables more freedom in design and opens new opportunities for designers and engineers to develop lightweight components with new functions. To make the most out of it, one needs to completely redesign the parts for 3D printing so that they will have the best properties where they are most needed.

A component that is reinvented for 3D printing often has little in common with the original part. Whereas an injection-molded part must be heavy and massive so that it can withstand great stresses, an equivalent 3D-printed part can have a seemingly filigree design consisting of arches, struts, and honeycomb structures. 

It can withstand stresses just as well as the injection-molded part but weighs only a fraction as much. These possible weight reductions coupled with relatively low production runs needed, make additive manufacturing a very interesting technique for aircraft construction.

In medical technology, another factor plays a role: no two people are alike. Therefore, prostheses, aids or even surgical devices must be individually measured and adapted. 3D printing is used to create small drilling and sawing aids for knee operations or hearing aids, for example. More recently, custom made implants are being made possible by fused filament fabrication using VESTAKEEP® i4 3DF implantable filament.

Greater production volumes will, more than anything else, require additive manufacturing to become faster. We work with many different companies and our Application Technology Center offers a showcase for the international 3D printer scene. In addition to machines from HP and 3D Systems, it features machines from the German market leaders EOS and Voxeljet, the Swiss company Sintratec, and the Chinese manufacturer TPM.

INFINAM® - Materials for infinite 3D applications

This deep understanding helps in the development of new materials for the various printing processes. Polyamide 12 (PA12), used in countless applications, is often the basis for this. We can either work on the base polymer or with additives like flame retardants or glass particles, for example.

Completely new materials are also being created. Last year, Evonik introduced a new INFINAM® PA powder based on PA613, combining the advantages of long- and short-chain polyamides: it is particularly temperature-stable, strong yet flexible-and absorbs little water. In 2018, based on a product introduced in the 1980s, the new INFINAM® TPA elastomer (thermoplastic amide) was developed to allow for print objects of rubber-like consistency.

And many more things are now possible with a new production technology that the company acquired in 2019: the U.S. start-up Structured Polymers process can powderize many more materials than Evonik was able to do before, like the new copolyester powder INFINAM® TPC, the first material developed with this innovative technology. No other company in the world can rely on as many different polymer powder production methods as Evonik.

Roughly two years ago the company opened a new research hub in Singapore to develop the next-generation photopolymers for vat polymerization. The first two photopolymers for industrial 3D printing applications were recently introduced under the brand names INFINAM® TI 3100 L and INFINAM® ST 6100 L and mark the start of a new product line suitable for use in common VAT polymerization technologies such as SLA or DLP.

Regardless of how quickly additive production will gain an industrial foothold, Evonik is determined to consistently conquer every new application. That means observing the dynamics of the market, driving innovation, and contributing our own expertise in a targeted manner and at an early stage. Above all, Evonik sees cooperation along the value chain as a door-opener to one of the most exciting future markets for engineering plastics and high-performance polymers. This is where Infinity meets reality

Weekly Brief

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