Higher productivity, cheaper materials AM market in 2023: the latest technology, outlook and trends

A guest post by Dr.-Ing. Vincent Morrison Reading Time: 6 min

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The 3D printing industry is continuing to develop very dynamically. This is due to competition between different 3D processes and technical advances in machine and process engineering. In general, this confirms that the industrial maturity of 3D printing in relation to conventional manufacturing strategies (casting or milling) continues to increase.

Dr.-Ing. Vincent Morrison, CEO of Aim3D, Rostock, Germany
Dr.-Ing. Vincent Morrison, CEO of Aim3D, Rostock, Germany
(Source: Aim3D)

There are many interesting and new approaches regarding the manufacture of components in the small and medium series production market segment (up to 100,000 parts/year). This applies to both metal and polymer 3D printing right up to ceramic applications. The criteria of the competition are build speed, part size and economic efficiency of unit costs. These factors define the investment decisions made by the users.

For users of 3D printing equipment, this leads to an increased demand for more productive machines and cheaper materials, as machine throughput must increase in order to reduce the cost per part. The competitive pressure driven by unit costs is forcing providers of 3D printing services to look at the latest generation of machines and systems. This applies in particular to upcoming investment decisions.

AM strategies become established in the industry

After more than 20 years of development, 3D printing has evolved from a prototype strategy (rapid prototyping) to a small and medium series production strategy. The reasons are primarily increasing build rates and improved precision. These build rates combined with precision result in continued gains in competitiveness compared to conventional processes. AM now complements the spectrum of established processes.

Many tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers in the industry have now developed a good knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of AM processes. What’s more, research institutions, universities and entreprises specialising in supporting start-up companies are assisting users who are new to the AM world or who are optimising their processes. Expert knowledge enables faster entry into the market, but also shortens the time-to-market cycle. One example among many is Faye Mills, a scientist from the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), an independent research and technology organisation in Coventry (UK). Together with industrial customers, the MTC bridges the gap between new manufacturing strategies and specific applications. Faye Mills uses our CEM system for projects from end customers to test new materials in the metals sector, develop component design guidelines and for the application-oriented optimisation of sintering cycles. Such institutions exist in many countries.

Industry and research now have the industrial know-how to avoid support structures and possess the right methods to carry out cost-effective post-processing of the parts. Therefore, AM has become more and more a process step within the production chain and is no longer seen as the only process step. The catch phrase here is the integrated, digital 3D process chain.

The industry has also succeeded in transferring this knowledge from the process and prototype level to the design phase and to communication with the end customer.

At the same time, however, we also have to evaluate the unique strengths of an additive strategy, such as tool-free manufacturing, freedom of geometry, bionic designs or manufacturing on demand, to use just a few keywords. By “thinking” of design with 3D technology in the future, innovative component designs will emerge that break free from the limitations of conventional manufacturing strategies. Here there is a lot of potential that still needs to be tapped.

Potenitial of commercially available pellets for plastics and metals

With the help of pellet 3D printers, companies can develop their prototypes from scratch to series production using identical, commercially available materials and machines. The new generation of industrial pellet material extrusion (MEX) printing systems is a key to this. This not only completes the development circle for polymers from prototype to series production for the first time in the AM industry, but also enables the number of manufactured parts realised with AM series production to grow in the future.

In terms of the printing process, these pellet MEX printers are very similar to the well-known filament MEX/FFF process. For this reason, they can be quickly adapted to different industries. Furthermore, these pellet printers will not only reduce unit costs, but will also expand the number of available polymer materials in the AM world from several hundreds to more than 10,000. In addition, many of these printers can print two or three materials at the same time in one print job, thus they have multi-component capability. For example, a polyamide 6 part with 50 percent glass fibre (PA6-50GF) and a TPE seal can be printed extremely economically and competitively with a soluble carrier material. The options offered by this system technology also enable a combination of processes with hybrid components, in which one component is manufactured in a conventional way and a second component is printed. This results in many perfect solutions for almost every industrial application.

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With regard to the CEM process (Composite Extrusion Modelling) and pellet 3D printing with a multi-material printer, the user has a wide range of materials with high printing performance to choose from. Last but not least, the cost-effectiveness results from being able to process conventional polymer pellets instead of filaments. The dimensions, based on an example component are as follows: a) printing speed (example PA6 GF30: filament: 50 mm/s vs. pellets: 500 mm/s i.e. approx. 10 times faster) and above all b) material price (filament: 200 euros/kg vs. pellets: 10 euros/kg, i.e. approx. 20 times lower cost). This explains the cost-saving potential of a MEX approach.

The current machine and system technology in the field of 3D pellet printing results in good mechanical performance, high gas tightness and media impermeability with low wall thicknesses and good electrical insulation. These properties have been confirmed by tier 1 suppliers in the automotive and aerospace industries. Therefore, the MEX market segment will continue to grow at an above-average rate in 2023 and beyond.

Major technical challenges in the medium to long term

The first and central challenge concerns the scrap rate as a part of cost optimisation. With the widespread use of AM in series production, machine and plant manufacturers will have to solve the situation that the AM process scrap rate compared to that of conventional production processes and manufacturing strategies is still relatively high. Even considering the fact that material extrusion and powder bed fusion processes achieve high recycling rates, recycling scrap parts will not really solve this issue, as this consumes processing time and energy. In order to overcome this, the key challenge for all AM processes is to stabilise scrap rates at well below two percent, this applies even in the case of high throughputs. The consequence of this is that the scrap rate of an AM process must be reduced to match the usual scrap rates of conventional processes. Processors from the automotive and aerospace sectors today achieve scrap rates of 2 to 2.5 percent in the metal sector (MIM) as well as in the plastics sector. This is already very good – and also applies to the comparison with MIM injection moulding and other additive technologies. However, in view of the higher unit costs compared to injection moulding, there is a great need to significantly reduce this rate. Additive manufacturing has to compete with conventional applications in order to become more competitive.

The second challenge facing the AM world is the high number of process parameters that need to be continuously monitored during printing, especially when you consider the build time of the parts. Conventional strategies, such as in-process part testing with laser sensors, are far too slow for the dynamics of the build process and do not improve their cost-effectiveness. As a result, machine and plant suppliers need to change the way they view process control. Approaches to this challenge include high-performance PLCs and new sensor technologies with their respective possibilities. Complex neuronal AI process controls could also be implemented in the machines in order to control the large amounts of process data and high number of process condition areas.

Solving both challenges will be a major concern for the AM industry in the future. The extent to which we meet these challenges will decisively determine the technical potential and the profitability of AM manufacturing strategies.