Ice cream. Molecules for medicine. Even human cells. The list of what materials are used in 3D printing grows longer—and much more interesting—by the day. And expanding it is a multibillion-dollar material arms race right now.
A recently released 3D-printing market study found that accelerating technological development will drive the 3D-printing market value from its 2017 level of $6.98 billion to $12 billion by the end of 2018. That means a huge increase in the materials those machines use.
Plastic still reigns supreme in the 3D-printing materials world. According to a SmarTech Markets Publishing report, 3D printing is expected to generate $1.4 billion in plastics sales by 2019. This isn’t just your “everyday” plastic. The industry is widely experimenting with new, novel approaches, such as bio-based resins made from corn and soybean oil.
But it doesn’t stop there in the 3D-printing materials world.
If there is a runner-up to plastic, it would be metal. Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) is the technique and, unlike printing plastics, it can be used to make either a finished industrial product or a prototype. The aviation industry is already an early proponent and consumer of DMLS printing to streamline operations and manufacture ready-to-install parts. There are even already mass-market DMLS printers for creating jewelry.
The growth and popularity of 3D printing of metals holds the potential to manufacture and create more effective machine parts that currently cannot be mass-produced onsite. This could lead to better conductors, tensile strength, and other attributes of laboratory metals than “mined-and-refined” metals such as steel and copper.
In the aerospace industry, the materials question is largely answered, and creating volume of parts is the Holy Grail. GE Aviation will begin printing injectors for its LEAP jet engine in 2016 and ramp up to about 35,000 per year just four years after that. It is the biggest and most ambitious additive manufacturing project ever undertaken by anyone in the industry.
The Newcomers: Graphite and Graphene
Australian-listed graphite and nickel miner Kibaran Resources has partnered with 3D-printing company 3D Group to share development costs on a research and development venture called 3D Graphtech Industries.
The partnership is pursuing patents to investigate 3D printing of graphite and graphene, a pure form of carbon first created in a laboratory in 2004. Graphene conducts electricity better, is stronger, easier to insulate, and lighter than other conductors on the market today. It outperforms even the best conductors several times over. As it must be created in a lab, it is a good case study for just what kind of mass production of metals additive manufacturing can accomplish.
Materials for research and development is sourced from Kibaran’s Tanzanian mines where graphite with high crystallinity and a purity of 99.9 percent carbon has been found. This is incredibly well-suited to the production of graphene.
The semiconductor industry is interested in producing large quantities of graphene as well. For example, IBM recently found a way to use it for LED lighting. The ability to 3D print sheets of material for use in LEDs would seriously cut lighting production costs.
Carbon-Fiber: As Strong As Steel?
Related to graphite, carbon fiber (which undergoes an oxidation process that stretches the polymer) can be added to the more traditional plastic to create a composite that can be as strong as steel but less intensive to use than aluminum, says Markforged. The company’s large-format 3D printers are designed to print stronger parts more quickly and at significantly lower costs.
Meanwhile, startup Impossible Objects has also been exploring carbon fiber as well as glass, Kevlar, and fiberglass. The company’s printer can also work with PEEK (polyether ether ketone) thermoplastic polymers, which are typically used for bearings, piston parts, and electrical cable installation.
Do I Need a New 3D Printer for These Materials?
So as the list of materials grows, what does this mean for the actual hardware? Right now, on the consumer level, plastic is about as good as it gets. For example, the $899 Dremel 3D20 is limited to one type of printing material, a common polylactide (PLA). PLA is a biodegradable plastic made from renewables such as cornstarch.
There are several printers focused entirely on DMLS today, including the 3DSystems ProX 300 and several models from Stratasys, but these currently cost upward of $100,000 each because DMLS printers burn much hotter than their plastic counterparts as the powders and metals they create have higher melting points. Stronger housings and more powerful industrial smelting tools bring up their costs significantly.
While many 3D-printer manufacturers are offering metal 3D-printing services, it will be some time before the economies of scale that helped bring down the cost of plastic 3D printing affect the DMLS market. And 3D-printing systems with graphite/carbon-fiber are just now starting to gain traction in the marketplace.
The diversity of applications that industries are exploring for 3D printing makes for an exciting but tumultuous time. From jet parts to lighting, the new (and “old”) materials will deliver even more opportunities for how and what industries print.
This article has been updated. It was originally published in November 2014.