Materials, in a way, could be the app of any 3D printing, at least just as much, or perhaps even more, than software applications can. While plastics are concentrated in a handful of suppliers, metals, which are beginning to be used in large format 3D printers, are more sophisticated and can be had from hundreds of sources. When 3D printers are able to use a wide range of different materials, endless possibilities will emerge.
Currently, most industrial 3D printers use polyamides such as PA11 and PA12. These high-end plastics are the materials of choice for applications where safety, durability, or reliability is critical. They are used to manufacture parts that need to be reliable for industries such as automotive, medical, sports, and aeronautics. PA11 is a bio-polyamide that is 100% made of recycled materials, an important consideration in supporting circular economy initiatives. Unfortunately, a high price makes these materials too expensive for low-cost consumer goods.
One of the most important recent developments has been the launch of the 3MF Consortium. It aims to provide an open standard for industrial 3D printing, with royalty-free specifications from 3MF members. The consortium already has over a dozen members, including companies such as 3D Systems, Autodesk, GE, HP, Microsoft, SAP, Siemens, and others.
On the 3D printer manufacturer's front, HP launched this year their line of high-performance Jet Fusion 3D printers. They can use a wide range of materials, including a family of thermoplastics, such as the PA11, and PA12, glass beads, and materials with flame retardant properties, as well as elastomers.
I had the opportunity to talk with Ramón Pastor, vice president and general manager, 3D Printing at HP. Pastor is responsible for the worldwide business of 3D printing solutions at HP, at their research and development center in Sant Cugat del Vallés, just outside Barcelona. He explained the concept of the 3D Voxel, the unit HP uses to define and calculate 3D printing solutions. "It is the 3D version of the 2D pixel," he said. It measures 20 x 20 x 60 microns and represents a value on a regular grid in a three-dimensional space.
Pastor said HP and other manufacturers are already experimenting with other materials such as high-temperature glass and some metals, but those solutions are still some years away from being commercially viable.
The cost of production of low volume parts and products could be reduced dramatically, based on the current state of industrial 3D printing, since unlike traditional manufacturing, the cost per unit is not dependent on volume. 3D printing also allows the same parts to be produced with exactly the same specs anywhere in the world, saving the additional cost of transportation and making production more sustainable. Also, as industrial 3D printers become cheaper and faster, the need for storage and large inventories becomes less important, as parts can be manufactured on demand.
3D printing is also helping to clean up plastic waste. Plastics For Change, a Canadian charitable organization, is collecting tons of discarded plastic from third world countries and pelletizing it, making it suitable for 3D printing of inexpensive products, and other applications.