New “Crackers” Will Drive 3D Printer Plastics R&D

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[Image: Forbes]

According to Forbes.com, plastic is the most dominant 3D printing material, accounting for 73% of all 3D printing materials used. The good news for the 3D plastics sector is that the US is making unprecedented investments in massive ethylene cracker manufacturing plants that produce plastic. Since 2010, over $150bn has been invested in US chemical plants, according to the American Chemistry Council. This huge investment will continue to spur plastic production available for the 3D printing industry.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent.  Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Changes in the U.S. Chemicals Industry Cracker Plant Investments Benefits 3D Printing

Over the past several years, the US made a shift towards developing new plants that make chemicals necessary for plastic production. Because manufacturers are more confident than ever that the available and less expensive gas feedstock in the US will last longer than previously anticipated, they are leaning towards developing new plants called ethylene crackers. These plants convert ethane into ethylene, a necessary component for plastic production. By using such low-cost feedstock, chemical operations will become more feasible and profitable.

[Image: Financial Times]

According to The Financial Times, companies such as Exxon, Sasol in South Africa, Dow, and CP Chem developed large ethylene crackers along the US Gulf of Mexico to begin production in 2017 and 2018. It is estimated that US ethylene production will increase from 25.8m tonnes last year to 34.2m tonnes next year, a 33% increase. Such growth will undoubtedly reap benefits in 3D printing, especially considering various industries’ reliance on plastic products. The plastic will become more affordable, which will promote use and growth of 3D printing of plastic products as described below.

HP’s 3D Printing Taken to a New Level

HP is in the process of testing 3D printing with thermoplastic urethane, or TPU. This material has many properties, including elasticity, transparency, and resistance to oil, grease, and abrasions. 3D printing with TPU can be integrated into many markets, including consumer products, sporting goods, automotive, aerospace, and packaging. This invention has the potential to bring the somewhat niche market of 3D printing to an entirely new level. HP’s vice president, Timothy Weber, said, “It’s all about plastic now,” and that by 2021, plastics in 3D printing will account for $10.4 billion or 57%.

3D Printer Plastics in Aerospace Companies

Aerospace companies have the opportunity to employ numerous 3D printing techniques. The most commonly used one is fused deposition modeling. With this method, aerospace companies create products made from plastic. Honeywell Aerospace is one of the many companies that invested in 3D printing in the US. A Honeywell engineer explained, “Our developments in this field have already helped save time and deliver better solutions for our customers.”

Airbus saw the most benefit from fused deposition modeling in creating and supplying spare parts for Airbus’ older aircrafts. In 2014, Airbus began producing 3D-printed plastic spare parts, including crew seat panels, based off designs that were 30 years old, according to Engineering & Technology Magazine. 3D printing of spare parts is beneficial because it means they can be printed on demand without inventory management requirements. Airbus also uses 3D printing to create noncritical plastic parts for aircraft cabins to reduce the overall weight.

Because of the increased availability of plastics used for such 3D printing, the aerospace industry can venture into producing other parts that have significant benefits for this sector and aircraft maintenance.

Ford Produces Car Parts out of 3D Printer Plastics

Ford is currently exploring ways to produce large, one-piece auto parts, such as spoilers, via 3D printing. They suggest the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer will revolutionize the vehicle manufacturing industry to develop more efficient and affordable cars and components. Ford is using plastic in its 3D printing, and anticipates to produce lighter-weight parts that will improve fuel efficiency. The company estimates that a 3D-printed plastic spoiler will weigh less than half of a metal-cast spoiler.

The benefits of 3D printing in the automobile industry are evident for speedy prototyping and parts manufacturing needed in minimal quantity. Via traditional methods, needed parts would take months to produce. However, with 3D printing, parts can be developed within days.

Mattel Offers 3D Printing Toy Studio

Mattel, the toy manufacturer, recently created a 3D printer that families can purchase to create their own toys at home. Priced at $300, the printer pairs with an app on smart phones that let users customize a wide range of toys. The printer currently uses hard PLA plastic filament. Mattel engineers plan to offer toy development with softer plastic to create more intricate heads on figurines, and glow-in-the-dark plastics. Exploration and usage of these different types of plastic will be possible with the recent growth in ethylene crackers.

Print Your Furniture in Manhattan

During the month of March, 2017, designers could go to a 3D printer pop-up shop called Print the Future in midtown Manhattan. The company is based in Vancouver, Canada, and plans to create permanent shops in major US cities. The purpose of this pop-up shop is to promote local designers to convert their designs into practical and beautiful furniture that is sold directly and quickly to consumers. The customized furniture is printed to order within 24 hours, and in the shop, consumers can watch the design come to life as the printer takes a flat disk of plastic and transforms it into furniture. It is predicted that this experience of watching furniture be “born” will inspire consumers to purchase more custom 3D printed furniture. This can possibly change the future of the furniture industry, and will be further explored with the recent growth in plastic production.

Printing Plastic for the US Military

The US military reaps many benefits from 3D printing with plastic. It intends to scan soldiers before they are deployed so in the event of catastrophic injury, precise prosthetics can be designed and printed on demand. The military will use Polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), a semi-crystalline thermoplastic with high heat resistance, chemical resistance, and the ability to withstand heavy mechanical weights. The Healthcare sector already uses PEKK in 3D printing after the FDA approved creating bone parts out of plastic. Following this approval, a doctor replaced 75% of a man’s skull with a 3D-printed PEKK skull that also stimulates cellular growth on its surface, according to Tech News Daily.

The 3D printers are beneficial in combat zones, where the Rapid Equipping Force can quickly design and produce spare parts or make fixes as needed to their equipment. For example, a notable and useful creation in the field was a plastic guard that prevents light emitted from a flashlight from exposing a soldier’s location.

The military also uses 3D printers to test and design plastic prototypes for equipment that will be needed in the field. This decreases time required to manufacture and deliver equipment. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force’s commander explained, “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”

Conclusion

3D printing is becoming a more widely accepted method to produce products more efficiently and on-demand. The most popular material used in 3D printing is plastic, which has many applications in a variety of industries, including aerospace, automotive, military, and consumer markets. At the same time, the US chemicals industry is flourishing with its development of and reliance on ethylene crackers—plants that facilitate plastic production. 3D printing will benefit from this current expansion in plastic production, which will undoubtedly impact many industries in the near future.


Charles Goulding and Chloé Margulis of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing in the plastics industry.

 

 

 

 

[i] https://www.ft.com/content/28649ac0-2f23-11e7-9555-23ef563ecf9a

[2] http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20170320/NEWS/170329993/hp-says-3d-printing-is-moving-from-niche-to-production

[3] https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2016/10/3d-printing-in-the-aviation-industry/

[4] http://www.airbus.com/

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