3D printing’s progress has been driven by the combination of hardware and software advances, improved throughput and quality, skilled workers and progressive buyers. And don’t forget materials.
For every improvement in 3D printing there are people — generally ill-informed people, some who hold the purse strings at businesses worldwide — who find something else to worry about. And after all of their complaints are overcome one-by-one, they play the materials card. As in, “Yeah, but can it print this material.” Or, “Plastic is cool but what about metal?” (without defining what metal they are thinking of or why they even need a metal part in the first place).
Yet, the Wohlers Report 2018 has a 51 page appendix of 3D printable materials. And 2017 Gartner Cool Vendor Senvol lists 2,179 materials in its database. The range of 3D printable materials providers is from the companies that sell 29,263 3D printer filaments on Alibaba (as of today!) to firms such as Arconic, BASF, GKN, Höganäs and Sandvik.
The truth is that for every ill-informed person there are tens if not hundreds more engineers, designers, buyers and marketers who need a much wider range and higher number of 3D printable materials. What is the industry to do?
Clearly the 3D printer technology providers are one source. Every month brings announcements of new materials in one or more of the seven 3D printing technologies. For example, GE Additive will begin offering aluminum alloy F357 in April from its expanding operations in Canada. Joe DeSimone, CEO of Carbon, says they are working with customers to develop new materials that can be used to produce durable, functional, end-use parts. And HP Labs have demonstrated 3D-printed circuits and operational sensors like strain gauges.
This week a somewhat unexpected entrant joined the growing ranks of 3D printable materials suppliers: Jabil. Operating from over 100 facilities in 29 countries, Jabil’s primary business is design, manufacturing, supply chain and product management services. Among its equipment Jabil has more than 200 3D printers spread across 80% of its factories. Production 3D printing is now in five sites as Jabil more than doubles the number of its 3D printers annually.
Jabil Engineered Materials will be produced at a new Materials Innovation Center in Minnesota that is equipped to deliver polymer formulations, compound development and ISO 9001 Quality Management System (QMS) certification. Jabil’s additive manufacturing engineers, chemists, materials scientists and production experts will consult with its customers to produce innovative custom powders and filaments. The staff will then develop the material given the 3D printers it will be used on, ensuring it meets the customer’s performance and quality requirements.
Jabil will reduce the time for materials development to as few as two weeks from request to receipt of the first batch of test material. Except for customer-specific items, all materials will be available to any 3D printer user.
I have long said that a significant potential benefit of 3D printing is unique material compounds. Sure, 3D printers can mimic existing designs. And new designs that can only be produced with 3D printing are possible. But a unique 3D printable design that is coupled with innovative custom materials results in a competitive edge.
Stratasys is the largest pure-play 3D printer manufacturer by revenue, with $668 million in FY17 net sales. The company recorded $96 million in research and development expenses for FY17. Those R&D dollars had to be spent on hardware, software and services as well as materials. How much do you think the 180 much smaller enterprise-class 3D printer technology providers can spend on developing new materials when they must advance their hardware and software?
The success of 3D printing technology providers such as Jabil will be an indication of whether the market will achieve material growth.
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Category: 3d-printing additive-manufacturing advanced-manufacturing supply-chain trends-predictions
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