For 3D printing day, IDTechEx discusses 3D printing in 2021: micro-trends in the main materials


To celebrate 3D Printing Day 2021 (3e December), Sona Dadhania, Technology Analyst at IDTechEx, wrote the article below exploring the 3D printing market for 2021.

3D printing began its path of recovery in 2021 after a difficult 2020, where the entire industry felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this year of recovery, IDTechEx noted the development and / or the continuation of micro-trends within each major subspecialty of 3D printing: polymer, ceramic, composite and metallic additive manufacturing. In this article, IDTechEx identifies and explains the micro-trends for each specialty of materials that deserve to be watched by 2022.

(Photo: RP Agility Solutions)

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Plastics: sustainable 3D printing polymers hit the market

3D printing has always claimed to be sustainable due to its reduced manufacturing losses compared to other forms of manufacturing like machining. However, the most popular materials have always been carbon-based polymers, which are inherently unsustainable as they are derived from non-renewable resources. Aware of this reality, more and more suppliers and companies of 3D printing materials are commercializing polymers for 3D printing with ecological characteristics, such as recyclability and reuse; this trend came into effect in 2021 as a different approach to sustainability in 3D printing.

For example, the chemical company Braskem has partnered with the materials recycling company Vartega to create a polypropylene filament that includes 100% recycled carbon fiber. This version of filament is part of a new carbon fiber filament recycling program that Braskem and Vartega are launching, which will encourage users of these filaments to recycle them appropriately. Fillamentum, which recently launched NonOilen, a 100% biodegradable polymeric filament, is another company that is launching a “green” filament. NonOilen, composed of polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), is also made from bio-based polymers (i.e. polymers from renewable resources).

However, filament makers aren’t the only type of 3D printing raw material that benefits from durable processing. In 2021, Materialize launched Bluesint PA 12, a 3D printing powder made from 100% reused powder. The goal of Bluesint PA 12 is to reduce powder wastage during selective laser sintering, which turns up to 50% of the powder in the bed into waste. With companies reiterating their commitment to sustainability, IDTechEx will closely monitor whether more biodegradable or recyclable 3D printing polymers hit the market in 2022.

Ceramics: the release of new materials foreshadows an expanding market?

The dominant trend for ceramic 3D printing in 2021 has been the launch of a variety of new materials through different technologies. These materials come from 3 main places, the first of which is that of 3D printing companies that are embarking on ceramic 3D printing for the first time. For example, Boston Micro Fabrication, which focuses on micro 3D printing with its projection micro-stereolithography technology, released high temperature alumina resin for micro-ceramic components.

The other source of new ceramic materials for 3D printing came from chemical or materials companies; in particular, these companies were little involved in 3D printing before the release of these materials. For example, the Green Polymer Additives division of the US company Emery Oleochemical has launched a polymer binder system which can be used for extrusion printing of metallic or ceramic filaments. Additionally, Hong Kong-based GC Advanced Materials Solutions has qualified silica and mullite powders that can be used with a polymer binder (like the one developed by Emery) to create ceramic filaments for extrusion printing.

The latest source of new materials has come from strategic partnerships. The first was between AGC Chemicals and the binder jet printer manufacturer voxeljet. AGC had previously produced a silica additive for 3D printing, but this was their first technical ceramic developed for 3D printing. The two companies worked together to create Brightorb, a high performance ceramic powder specially designed for investment casting molds and shells.

The second partnership was between composites start-up Fortify and Tethon 3D, a company specializing in ceramic 3D printing materials. They developed high purity alumina and aluminum silicate resins for Fortify’s FLUX CORE printers, which are designed to handle charged photopolymer resins. Both companies intend to develop more technical ceramic resins in the future.

What is especially noteworthy about these material publications is the companies that publish them. Other than voxeljet and Tethon 3D, none of the companies mentioned have tried ceramic 3D printing before. This could foreshadow an expansion of the ceramic 3D printing field in the near future, which IDTechEx will be looking for in 2022.

Composites: Notable Partnerships Advance Composite 3D Printing

In recent years, a number of partnerships have been formed to advance technological development, material development and adoption of composite 3D printing. Partnership formation continued unabated in 2021, primarily with a focus on material development collaborations.

As mentioned earlier, the Braskem and Vartega partnership is just one of those major 3D composite printing partnerships for materials development.

First, materials supplier Solvay has partnered with Swiss start-up 9T Labs. 9T Labs has created a hybrid composite printing system that combines 3D printing and molding, and the Solvay partnership aims to develop Solvay’s material portfolio like CF-PEEK, CF-reinforced PA and CF-PPS for 9T Labs printers.

The second partnership is between the Japanese multinational Ricoh and Impossible Objects, a start-up manufacturing composites by laminating sheets. Sheet lamination is a very specialized AM technology in which very few companies operate. Some of those that had abandoned their sheet lamination products, like EnvisionTEC, or closed, like Solido.

Impossible Objects hopes to revive the technology with its Composite-Based AM (CBAM) technology, which they are expanding in Europe through Ricoh Europe’s AM service office, which will now include the technology. The Ricoh / Impossible Objects partnership was not the only one formed in 2021 for the start-up CBAM. In May 2021, Impossible Objects announced a collaboration with Owens Corning to develop fiberglass composites for 3D printing. The objective of the partnership is to develop CBAM technology for high strength and high volume applications.

A notable similarity is that all of the partnerships mentioned involve established materials or technology companies like Solvay, Ricoh and Owens Corning, in partnership with future start-ups. As more and more large companies continue to explore the potential for expansion in 3D printing, it is likely that more of these types of partnerships will form, which IDTechEx will follow in 2022.

Metals: growing momentum for the extrusion of bonded metals?

Bound Metal Extrusion (BME) (also known as Metal-Polymer Filament Extrusion, or MPFE) has received many 3D printing presses in recent years as market leaders Desktop Metal and Markforged accelerate their expansion with PSPC mergers and acquisitions abound. BME refers to the extrusion of polymer filaments loaded with metal powders; after printing, the BME parts undergo debinding (to remove the polymer binding the metal powder into a filament) and sintering (to completely densify the metal part). From a technology perspective, 2021 has seen not only continued support and development for BME systems from major players, but also new companies entering the space with their own BME systems.

In early 2021, Desktop Metal released the Studio System 2, an upgraded version of its original BME desktop printer, the Studio System. The Studio System 2 notably eliminated the solvent debinding step normally required for BME through the development of new material formulations for the Studio System 2. This significantly reduces the post-processing time required for parts manufactured by BME, thus increasing the potential efficiency of the technology. Markforged has also announced the release of its next-generation BME system, the Metal X Gen 2, although the main innovation in this version is software-related.

However, while market leaders have taken some notable steps, what’s particularly interesting for the tech is the number of companies that will release BME printers in 2021, with most launching them at Formnext 2021. For example, the Spanish printer manufacturer BCN3D has announced a “Metal Pack”. which can be attached to their Epison line of printers to enable extrusion of BASF’s Ultrafuse metal filament. Additionally, 3DGence has announced its BME ELEMENT line of printers, which will not use BASF’s Ultrafuse filament in favor of its own metal filaments. Belgian start-up FuseLab has launched its own BME printer capable of printing both metals and polymers, with two extruders, an open filament system and a heated chamber. With all of these new entrants to the BME in 2021, IDTechEx will be monitoring whether the field picks up even more speed in 2022.

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