2022 Predictions: 3D Printing Metals and New Materials

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3D printing materials are a key component in 3D printing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of large metal and polymer companies pile into the market. These huge firms have put materials in the driving seat. As they’ve chased volume, they’ve helped to create new applications for 3D printing. They’ve also been able to bring together industrial partners and OEMs to perfect materials. In metals and, especially, polymers, these businesses have had an outsized impact, but what of the future? Will materials become commoditized? Or will edge and innovation cement the leadership positions of some players?

I believe that the materials space can become extremely competitive, especially if small-to-midsized players take on a role of compounders and integrators and develop specialized materials for manufacturing applications. There’s someone printing thousands of window frames; they should and could get their own special material.

I believe that many more fit-for-purpose materials should be developed. An extrusion feedstock for end effectors, for drone wings, and specific to jigs and fixtures. These are things that, if they performed better, people would pay extra for. Meanwhile, a lot of materials will be commoditized.

To me, a key move is also to tie materials to processes, simulation, and parameters. On the desktop, I hope that we kill polylactic acid (PLA) because it is just awful to work with, uses up too much water, and isn’t actually sustainable. On the industrial side, I hope that we have more feedstocks for people to work with that match those that are used in traditional manufacturing technologies.

The company’s in house M290 building parts made from scrap.

Albert Sutiono played a key role at Singapore’s NAMIC before joining powder manufacturing company Molyworks to revolutionize how metal powder is made. We turned to him for his insights into this area of AM in 2022.
“I foresee two trends in 2022: 1. There will be more interest and demand for sustainably-sourced AM feedstocks, both for filament and metal powder. 2. The trend in investments and M&As will shift from machine maker to software and material companies,” Sutiono said.
Albert’s succinct answer belies a deep understanding of the market. Sustainability used to be this cute thing people did for PR. A company would conduct a “green” project and be done with it, but now there is a groundswell in sustainable manufacturing. For many car and manufacturing companies, sustainability has become a key performance indicator. Now, managers are incentivized to become more sustainable so I think this will grow significantly in the future. We’re already seeing a shift towards more application- and software- focused startups. I believe the industry is going to be more application-focused on the whole.
Ankit Sahu, the founder of India’s largest 3D printing service bureau Objectify, noted:

“The demands for the metal AM market is going through a dynamic shift. On one hand, the user is wishing to replace their traditional alloy with AM and, on the other, the specifics related to alloy metallurgy for metal AM have improved quite a lot. So, in the coming year, the user and researcher will agree on the qualifications of new alloys for the process. The other big thing is that the new standards published by ASTM, AMS, AWS and ISO have created a level playing ground for users, researchers and people like us.”

Qualifications and standards will be where a lot of the future is decided in 2022. I totally agree with that, especially if you look at aviation, automotive, and space, where a lot of Objectify’s parts end up.

Long time 3D printing consultant and 4DBiomaterials executive Phil Reeves is one of the most knowledgeable people in 3D printing. Reeves thinks:

“As machine productivity increases, I expect the volume of material consumption to increase significantly and the materials market revenue to overtake machine sales. Materials will continue to be the driver for adoption, with new applications being driven by new materials, such as 4Degra. I also think that, as with 4Degra and APWorks Scalmaloy, we will see new materials emerging that have been developed solely for 3D printing and not traditional processing. In short: the real value is in the materials and the applications, not the hardware.”

I’ll always agree with what Phil says and the value to me is in the application, not anything else. All the other stuff is just overhead.

Quality and Quality Management Consultant Erik Boelen, of AM medical devices and quality consultancy Qase3D, told 3DPrint.com:

“In the medical field, I foresee a growing adoption of 3D printed polymers and ceramics at the expense of titanium. Initially, mainly non-resorbable (PEEK, Hydroxyapatite), but also increasingly resorbable materials (polyurethanes, calcium phosphates). Personally, I hope an implantable, resorbable material (or family of materials) is developed that can be printed using [selective laser sintering[ technology; that way you can print complex, porous implants support-free and resin-free and you have virtually no material waste. I also really like Xolography, as a technology that is real 3D printing, most of what we do now is 2D printing and stacking.

I’m a huge fan of resorbable materials and it’s nice to see his opinion dovetail with Phil’s. I believe that its’ very dangerous to have certain polymers in the body for the long haul and really hope that we will see more development there, especially in sintering. More reservable materials could be a huge leap forward for us. And I agree completely Xolography is potentially a very exciting technology!

Shane Collins is the Head of AM Advisory Services at ASTM, an ASTM Fellow, and has been working at a very high level in AM since at least 1999.

“In the next few years, we will see polymer AM materials exceed the mechanical properties of injection molded plastics, which will drive more applications and significant number increases in AM parts particularly in the [electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft] market  On the metal side, I see a shift in processing traditional alloys and a turn to materials that either are only processable with AM or not feasible with traditional manufacturing methods. Refractory alloys with a high content of niobium and zirconium will start to replace nickel alloys in super-high-temperature applications, such as hypersonics and propulsion.”

I’m not so sure about being able to exceed injection molded plastics, in the long term maybe, but so soon? That would be great, though. Electric vertical take off aircraft would seem to be a far-off proposition for AM, but it could be a huge application and Shane is an early booster. A renewed focus on AM-specific materials would make sense and hypersonics are also sure to shake up the existing high-temperature metals space. Frankly, building hypersonics with current generation materials is like trying to make a passenger plane out of Play-Doh.

Fabio Sant’Ana is a long-time AM expert with FARCCO TECNOLOGIA who also knows everything that is everything about 3D printing in Brazil. Need to do something with 3D printing in Brazil? Call Fabio.

“In metals the ‘electrification’ of everything will give a big impulse in AM copper, and consequently in  PBF-EB copper because, today, this is the most efficient AM process for this material. Furthermore, the use of tool steels and carbides will advance a lot in AM. The second trend I see is the multiplication of ceramic AM applications, AM ceramics are coming out of the academic world into the real world.”

Ceramics really are the once-and-future king. Their performance in many applications beats anything else and they’re often difficult to make with conventional means. So, I totally see this happening. Copper is the hottest material right now and a lot of people are really looking at electron beam because of it. I also see more possibilities for tool steels, with more people I know personally turning to them at the moment and looking to get carbides manufactured into parts. And the shift to electrification could be the biggest thing to ever happen to us.
Another person bullish about ceramics is XJet CBO Dror Danai, a pioneer in inkjet 3D printing since 2005.

“Already before the pandemic, we started to observe a shift toward technical ceramics and we started to see more and more applications that were impossible in traditional technologies being opened by the introduction and improvement of ceramic AM. In 2022, as the economy begins recovering to pre-pandemic levels and above, this interest and trend will further accelerate,” Danai told us. 

“The second trend [I’ve noticed] is that AM has always faced the challenge of reaching material properties for parts that are as good as traditional technologies while delivering on the ‘holy grail’ of AM, which is zero cost of complexity. In 2020-2021, we have seen our customers for both Zirconia and Alumina run some rigorous tests on the properties of our materials. The results they got were excellent and this gives them (and me) the confidence to use ceramic AM intensively in a plethora of industries including medical devices, dental, energy, machinery, automotive and many others. And in a variety of applications that range from decorative elements all the way to parts that are used under stress like car pistons.”

I agree that 2022 will be the defining year for ceramics and I hope that this material will go from being exotic to standard for us all. We will talk about all of this and more at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022 event coming this March 1-3 in New York and online.

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