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Making the Most of 3D Printing and Composites

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Polymer matrix reinforced with long carbon fibers has the highest potential to replace metals and reduce the total weight of functional structures. Learn why combining 3D printing and carbon fiber revolutionizes this solution.

The composites industry has displayed significant potential for growth for many years, but it has been missing a breakthrough technology that could meet the complex technical and economical demands. Newer manufacturing technologies like 3D printing could bring significant benefits to composites processing and enable lightweight solutions for industries such as automotive and aerospace.

Carbon-Fiber Thermoplastics Composites – Materials of the Future

Polymer matrices reinforced with long carbon fibers have the highest potential to replace metals and reduce the total weight of functional structures. However, producing a part with carbon-fiber composites can be very expensive in terms of raw material cost, labor and the large amount of waste produced by molding or injection manufacturing.

Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites are considered the materials of the next industrial breakthrough. The demand for CFRP is predicted to continue growing at a rate of 10%-15 % per year and is likely to reach 100,000 metric tons in 2021. Carbon fiber thermoplastics composites are in high demand in the aerospace and automotive industries thanks to their light weight and mechanical strength. 

Although carbon composites are the optimal choice for highly demanding applications, the industrial-grade carbon composites currently available are often cost prohibitive for many industries. Conventional manufacturing methods of carbon composites, including compression molding, injection molding and automated fiber placement, incur high production costs. One of the main factors influencing the high cost is the complexity of processing. The processing of CFRP is highly time- and material-consuming and involves multiple stages: mold preparation, polymer and carbon fiber preparation, infiltration, consolidation, cooling and finishing works.   

Advantages of Additive Manufacturing Technology

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has great advantages for reducing cost of production in terms of efficient processing and material use. It enables the reduction of various complementary stages in the production process, such as utilizing molds for pieces or assembling individually manufactured parts. Molds have a significant impact on manufacturing cost because creating, transporting and using molds is time-consuming and requires a great amount of resources. Efficient part design is another advantage of 3D printing manufacturing, because 3D printing of high-performance industrial-grade materials helps reduce redundant assembly details as well as the total weight of the printed piece. 

With the continuous improvement of additive manufacturing technologies, it is now possible to 3D print composites, especially carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites. This breakthrough is another demonstration of 3D printing innovation that is likely to disrupt traditional industrial practices.

Best of Both Worlds: 3D Printing and CFRP

Carbon fiber and additive manufacturing technology have received a lot of attention for the outstanding performance and possibilities they both offer. Because carbon fiber is as strong as steel and 50% lighter, the industry has rapidly turned to this high-tech material that can print almost any geometric shape. Newly engineered composites reinforced with carbon fibers—with new categories of high-performance polymers and liquid resins—are a significant achievement in terms of reduced structural weight.

With the continuing demand for lightweight solutions in the automotive and aerospace industries, experts predict a rapid increase for 3D-printed composites—up to $US 5 billion. This trend is driven by the undeniable benefits of 3D-printed CFRP, including:

1) ease of processing,

2) potential cost reductions,

3) increased part complexity,

4) and functional integration (e.g., building fiber-optic sensors right into the composite structure).

Process-Adapted Materials for CFRP 

One of the most promising composites for reduced weight is carbon fiber reinforced PEKK (polyether ketone ketone), a material relatively easy to process in additive manufacturing. The polymer chemistry is a tailored combination of two monomers (terephthaloyl and isophthaloyl) that can be reinforced with continuous carbon fibers. Combining carbon fiber reinforced PEKK and filament extrusion technologies provides improved mechanical properties and opens up the possibility of new applications across several industries.

Arkema has partnered with 9T Labs (Zurich), a start-up company specializing in the 3D printing of thermoplastic composites, which has developed a technology that automates the manufacture of composites using additive manufacturing and advanced software algorithms. This technology will enable the mass production of composite parts using Arkema’s Kepstan® PEKK. Together, the exceptional properties of the Kepstan® PEKK polymer and the 9T Labs design software facilitate the manufacture of high-performance parts.

3D-printed fiber composites made with UV-curable resins is another exciting advancement in additive manufacturing. N3xtDimension® photocurable resin technology provides freedom of design early in the engineering process and enables the customization of high-performance thermoset resins for different types of structural and functional fibers such as carbon fiber, fiberglass or fiber optics. Arkema has also partnered with a breakthrough start-up company, Continuous Composites, whose revolutionary Continuous Fiber 3D Printing (CF3D®) technology comprises hardware, software, materials and motion platforms to make composite manufacturing automated and affordable.

CF3D® technology, combined with custom N3xtDimension® photocurable resins from Sartomer, a business line of Arkema, creates a mold-less and out-of-autoclave composite manufacturing process with the ability to steer fibers in all dimensions for topology-optimized structures using an anisotropic fiber. Driving measurable cost reductions and removing traditional manufacturing barriers, CF3D® is a more efficient and tailorable solution for end-use applications. Combining continuous fiber with high-performance thermoset resins enables CF3D® to print low-cost, complex composite parts in a net-shape additive manufacturing process.


Often, the cited problem with fiber composites is material processability. In response to the market-specific needs for the processability of materials, 3D Printing Solutions by Arkema has designed high-performance materials adapted to the processing challenges of additive manufacturing. Coupling additive manufacturing with carbon fiber reinforced polymers or liquid resins is a revolutionary step in achieving lightweight and high-performing pieces for this industry.

Arkema is committed to partnering with innovative companies to offer customization at the material level, with the belief that close partnerships help end users move beyond past performance limitations in order to be at the forefront of 3D printing and industrial advancements.

Sumeet Jain, Senior Director, 3D Printing Worldwide at Arkema, for 3D Printing Solutions by Arkema

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