At TCT Birmingham, the ebb and flow of greetings, hello’s and sales pitches wash over the hall. We sit huddled together on bar stools at the shiny white Ultimaker stand. Iris watches over us, making sure no one says anything off kilter. In front of us are some black very stiff 3D printed parts. No Yoda heads here they’re professional looking parts for industry. Next to them is a CC Red 0.6 Print Core for Ultimaker 3D printers. There’s a material made by Owens Corning, a nozzle made by Olsson and a printer made by Ultimaker and we’re at the frontier of the new and the possible.

The CC Red Core

The print Core is a easy user replaceable hot end and extruder. The CC Red has been developed for abrasive materials by the good people of the Olsson ruby. This particular nozzle assembly is hardened for use with abrasive materials. The concept behind the print cores was that on the one hand the user can switch out nozzles rapidly in the case of failure but on the other hand that optimal Cores will lead to improved 3D print results. Abrasive materials such as carbon fiber of glass fiber filled materials tend to wear down and destroy conventional nozzles in a matter of hours. Even metal filled polymers will wear down a nozzle in around a spool or so of material. The hard fibers in composite materials are a nightmare for our butter soft brass nozzles. The CC Red aims to solve this by hardening the nozzle using an industrial Ruby material in the tip. Ideally the new nozzle will lead to many hours of uninterrupted 3D printing with these difficult composite materials.

Why composites?

First seen as a bit of a novelty we now see composite materials everywhere in 3D printing. Part of this is a result of a rather high disposable income bracket of people who will buy anything thrown at them. Part of this is also a result of hype around composites an zich. High strength to weight and high stiffness has seen these materials become to have hero status in many applications. In 3D printing, short fiber composites do not give you the strength that hand layup carbon fiber can do. In these processes, mats of carbon are bonded with resin under an autoclave. In 3D printing, short fibers reinforce a material and can be used essentially as an additive to improve properties. By adding fibers we can get much-improved stiffness from parts. Stiffness means that the part will maintain its shape under stress and (it is hoped) prolonged use. Impact can be improved as well as can Hdt (heat deflection temperature) or Cst (continuous service temperature). By adding glass fibers to 3D printing filaments properties can be tweaked to get higher real world performance from the filament. In this case the company Owens Corning reports “durable, stiff parts” with lower thermal expansion.

Are composites perfect?

Yes, a leading title if there ever was one. Composites can take a tricky to work with low performance material that yields barely fit for prototyping parts and turn it into a material that could last a long time under the hood of your car. In that case they are real steroids for materials. In my opinion, however, composites should only be used sparingly when other solutions fail. Some composite materials can cause lung, mucous membrane or eye irritation when post processed or with part wear. Long-term exposure to chopped fiber leads to contact allergies. In this case, the Xstrand material is, as far as I know inert in the lung. The fibers in these materials are technically not respirable. I’d always print composites with a HEPA and Carbon filter however. Size wise and encapsulated in the material one should be OK as the absorption would tend to be limited. But, a monicker such as CF or GF can mean anything and some vendors do not disclose the aramid or other fiber material that they compound into the filament. These particular fibers are not a known carcinogen but other fibers are and these could be used by unscrupulous vendors. They may also not disclose the size of the fibers. This may mean that they could be respirable and cause injury and irritation to the lung. Due to this I would only buy CF and GF materials from trusted vendors who disclose the nature, size and brand of fiber in the composite. Even then to my knowledge, it is currently unclear if compounding cases these fibers to become smaller in some cases. Be especially careful and use all the right personal protective gear when post processing this material especially when grinding or sanding it. You should look like you’re about to cook meth. This is an industrial material and should be used accordingly.

Composites are also a nightmare to recycle. For this reason alone I believe that they should be used sparingly in large volumes of end use parts. Owning a pet or going on vacation by plane is probably going to have a higher negative environmental impact than your 3D printing hobby or work at the office. Things such as carbon fiber racing bicycles are asinine however. A brittle bicycle that can partially shatter when dropped on the side of a curb is just an expensive way to label yourself a moron. I personally have high hopes that flax and hemp based composites can get us the right temperature and stiffness performance in materials that can be recycled easily.

What is Xstrand?

Xstand is a family of two 35% glass filled (glass fiber filled or GF) materials by Owens Corning. One is a polypropylene and the other a PA 6. Both variants are up to 35% filled so hats off to the compounder and happy days to whomever is selling them screws. The materials have been developed as industrial materials with good chemical and UV resistance. Polypropylene and PA 6 (polyamide 6, “a Nylon”) are very familiar materials to manufacturing companies and will let them experiment with 3D printing within the confines of the familiar. The PA variant is destined to become very popular due to the hype growth in reinforced polyamides over the past years. Reinforced/glass filled composites are one of the fastest growing materials in 3D printing at the moment. We’re at a phase in the industry whereby people are trialing production of tough but not certified parts (except aerospace and medical). So PA 6 reinforced is a good candidate for MySecond3DPrinting material after men exhausts the possibilities of PLA (or more likely is exhausted by PLA). Its a smart move for Owens Corning to stick to what they know in 3D printing and manufacture something as timely as this. Having said this it retails at $160 for a kilo which puts it rather close for comfort with PEI and other materials. In some areas, PPSU would be a very good value when compared to this. In others one maybe will see it pip PPA materials or other higher temperature materials that are unfilled but whose compounds are more expensive. I would expect better surface quality from unfilled materials also. 

 

The Ecosystem

Owens Corning is part of the Ultimaker Material Alliance and the profile data of this material will all be added to Cura. By building its ecosystem and testing filaments Ultimaker is ahead of the pack here. Others though all want “certified”, “allied” or tested materials and many 3D printing vendors are trying to motivate materials companies to join their platform. Platform thinking is very present in business today but in this sense it is useful. By having optimized nozzles, settings and materials for the S5 printer Ultimaker can give a better user experience for its customers. In effect Ultimaker’s ecosystem lets it be open while better being able to approach the performance of Stratasys by having everything dialed in. I don’t see another viable play for a desktop vendor that wants to go upmarket unless they are completely vertically integrated. This to me is a happy medium of having a flexible offering but giving people a good user experience. At its very core Ultimaker has always been very open and a UX driven firm so this is their way of combining this into a viable manufacturing future.

What does this mean?

According to them it took a five-person team at Owens Corning three years to develop this material. The team looked at this new business thoroughly through market analysis. They picked the materials due to the fact that they were both high volume extrusion and injection molding materials. They thought it convenient for the customer to use the same material for prototyping. They then went on to develop customer applications based on the materials. It is key to them that this material can be used in regular desktop 3D printers so that the installed base that can consume the material is very high. The team looked extensively at factors such as viscosity and nozzle wear to determine the optimal characteristics of the material. They claim a factor of two to three improvement of modulus over ABS. The parts should be able to withstand temperatures around 120C. This would make the PA 6 material a very attractive candidate material for possible automotive use. The team was especially proud of the shrinkage reduction that they managed to realize with this material in addition to high stiffness. They see this material being used in industrial applications such a tooling for industry. Jigs and fixtures are an obvious candidate. They do recommend that you always pre-dry the filament which is very sensible of them to say with PA. The team will continue to develop new materials in 3D printing and is looking to expand its commercial relationships. Ultimaker CMO Nuno Campos stated that this fit into “Ultimaker’s customer-centric approach to the market where the company will continue to expand applications in the market together with partners.”

Essentially this a very good move by Ultimaker to leverage partnerships and market access and turn it into higher performance parts. I expect many more companies to try to ape this strategy and consider it necessary for the next steps in our industry.

 

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