The 3D printing industry is as diverse a field as any out there. While the market used to be confined to a handful of major companies in select parts of the world, today’s industry consists of thousands of different firms scattered across the globe, each with its own unique technology and approach to additive manufacturing (AM).
A lesser-known player in the market is Pollen Additive Manufacturing (Pollen AM), a French company that has a surprisingly long history in a somewhat niche corner of the market: pellet additive manufacturing (PAM). I had the chance to visit Pollen AM headquarters in Paris, France to talk with the team and learn about the company and PAM technology firsthand.
Pollen AM: An Industry Veteran
When meeting with Pollen, something that immediately struck me was the age of the company. Pollen started informally as an idea in 2011, a time when 3D printing was still just an enigmatic technology consisting of only a handful of companies. Considering that well-established names like Raise3D only came into existence in 2015, Pollen AM’s tenure makes it a true veteran of the industry.
What makes Pollen even more unique, however, is the fact that they’ve been exclusively pursuing PAM the entire time. Even in today’s more mature market, pellet printing is considered a niche technology. To have pursued this field in 2011 was nothing short of a gamble With such a long history in such an obscure corner of the market, it’s clear that Pollen has been doing something right to have survived this long. So, what is it about Pollen? And what is a pellet printer anyway?
How Does a Pellet Printer Work?
At the highest level, PAM works in the exact same fashion as a typical FDM machine: material is melted down, extruded, and cooled through a toolhead in a layer-by-layer fashion. Where pellet systems differ, however, is in the original form of the material feed. Unlike conventional FDM printers, which are fed a specially fabricated spool of filament, pellet printers are fed material pellets.
From the top down, the system starts with a material cartridge, which is essentially a storage container that holds the pellets. These pellets, which range from 2mm to 4mm in size, are then fed into an auger screw which guides the material through the extruder. The extruder itself has thermally controlled regions that selectively melt and cool the material on its way through the toolhead.
This is where the differences between FDM stop. As Pollen’s General Manager, Didier Fonta, puts it, “After the extrusion process, we are equivalent to FDM.”
Cool, but Why Pellets?
According to Fonta, the significant advantage of pellet printing has to do with material selection. In traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding, the process begins with pelletized materials which are melted, injected, and cooled. In FDM, on the other hand, we add a layer of abstraction to the process by taking the pelletized materials and forming them into filament spools.
One negative consequence of this extra step is that it significantly drives up the cost of materials. Additionally, the filament fabrication process can degrade the material’s properties to the point that some materials cannot become usable filament at all. All things considered, turning pellets into filament limits the quality, variety, and affordability of materials for 3D printing.
PAM solves these problems by going straight to the source and printing directly from the pellets. By doing this, printers are able to use the exact same materials that are used in injection molding—no modifications needed. In this way, PAM harnesses the long history, extensive R&D, and economies of scale that exist in the world of injection molding.
The result? Materials for pellet printers are significantly more affordable and diverse than traditional FDM materials. As Fonta says, “10 years ago, many industrial-level filaments could cost up to 300 Euros/kg. With pellets, the same material was between 1 and 5 Euros/kg.”
PAM also shines with respect to the material quality it enables. In applications like aerospace, high-quality certified engineering-grade materials are a necessity. While these materials exist abundantly for conventional manufacturing methods like injection molding, they are less available in the form of filament spools. By directly using pellets, PAM machines can print from these top-grade materials with no extra steps required. This ultimately opens up new possibilities for the types of end-use parts that are attainable through 3D printing.
Pollen’s name is directly inspired by these advantages. As Fonta explains “Pollen is the smallest constituent from which nature exists. You start with pollen, you end up with a tree. That’s how we see PAM.”
Pollen’s Unique Offerings
Pollen AM itself offers a number of different printer options to its customers, each of which can be ordered in a variety of configurations based on their needs.
Each printer shares a number of common features, including:
- Up to four extruders that can print simultaneously (maximum 450C)
- A heated build plate (maximum 250C)
- A heated and enclosed printing chamber (maximum 80C)
While the heated chamber can reach a maximum of 80C, the printers also come equipped with a heated disc that lives right by the extruder nozzles which can uniformly heat the top layer up to 350C.
With maximum print volumes of Ø 300 x H 300 mm and nozzle sizes ranging from 0.25 mm to 1.20 mm, Pollen’s printers can handle any range of materials from standard thermoplastics to metals, ceramics, and everything in between. While Pollen advertises itself as “open to any material”, the company actively validates and adds more materials to its “approved” list every day.
While other pellet printers exist on the market, Fonta tells us that what makes Pollen stand out from the competition is the resolution. He states, “We are unique because we are capable of printing at really fine resolutions. We are maybe one of the most advanced of the printing solutions in the space, largely because we are also one of the oldest.”
To Fonta’s point, their printers are capable of resolutions of 40µm in the Z axis, 5µm in the X and Y, and dimensional accuracies of ± 0.2 mm. This compares to the resolution for an Ender 3, which is around 100um in the Z.
Pollen AM’s Future
As a testament to the technology, the market is finally seeing the emergence of other PAM players. Fonta notes “More players are reaching the market and this is good because it’s proof for us that we were not too wrong to bet on PAM.”
Meanwhile, Pollen has their eyes set firmly on the future. Their near-term goals are in material development, including plans to open a subsidiary in Belgium dedicated to materials research in ceramics.
Finally, remarking on their longevity and technology, Fonta proclaims, “We’ve been in the market for over a decade. We’ve proven our technology works, and it works well. It’s time more people knew about Pollen.”
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