This is an exclusive preview of the Wohlers Report 2015, which has provided an annual summary on the state of additive manufacturing, with estimates and forecasts, for the past two decades
By Tim Caffrey
By Terry Wohlers
Wohlers Associates Inc.
The additive manufacturing industry has entered a new era, propelled forward by expiring patents, bursts of new investment, and increasing demands on quality, price, and performance from every segment of a rapidly growing user community.
Many startup efforts around new materials and processes are underway. Most are focused on versions of existing AM technology, although some are novel and could create entirely new markets. Among the most interesting are printed electronics, hybrid metal systems, and a new process from Hewlett-Packard (HP).
Other new developments are similar to established processes, such as laser sintering and stereolithography. The opportunity to produce lower-cost versions of these processes has stimulated innovation and brought startup companies into the AM field. Using new or multiple materials is attractive to groups that demand special properties from parts made by additive manufacturing. It is exciting to see so many developments occur in such a short period of time.
The final foundation patent for selective laser sintering, held by the University of Texas at Austin, expired in June 2014. More than a half dozen new machine developments have emerged in the US, Europe, and China in the past year. One of the most serious is China’s Hunan Farsoon, which recently entered the North American market with machines and materials.
Vat photopolymerization, the “granddaddy” of all AM processes, continues to be popular. Many of 3D Systems’ stereolithography patents have expired, and a significant number of new manufacturers have entered the photopolymer machine market. The trend accelerated in 2014, resulting in more than a dozen new offerings in the low-cost and industrial machine segments. Much of the development has been around small machines that use digital light processing (DLP) technology for jewelry and other small, intricate parts.
Ceramics are a material family with tremendous untapped potential when paired with the freeform capabilities of AM. Lithoz and 3DCeram (and by extension, Prodways) offer photopolymer systems that produce precision ceramic parts. The binder jetting process is a natural for producing ceramic parts, so ExOne, Voxeljet, and 3D Systems have developed, or are developing, ceramic materials for their binder jetting systems.
3D-printed electronics is developing rapidly, with many recent investments. In October 2014, for example, the FlexTech Alliance awarded $1.3 million to nScrypt and NovaCentrix to co-develop a new system for 3D printing integrated circuits onto 3D objects and flexible surfaces.
Aerosol Jet technology from Optomec was one of the first commercially available methods of printing electronics. The process can produce line widths of less than 10 µm on a line pitch of less than 20 µm, and layers as thin as 50 nm. Aerosol jet materials include metal and nonmetallic conductors and dielectrics, adhesives, and etchants. Aerosol Jet print engines are used in high-volume production applications to make antennas and sensors for mobile electronics.
In late 2014, startup Voxel8 unveiled its new multimaterial electronics printer. The company’s “Developer’s Kit” 3D printer is a dual-extruder system that prints in PLA and conductive silver ink. The company launched pre-sales of the $9000 printer in early 2015.
Hybrid Metal Systems
In late 2011, Matsuura displayed metal parts produced with its machine that combines metal powder bed fusion with periodic CNC milling. Then came Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies in 2013, with its AMBIT tool-changeable powder deposition head that turns nearly any CNC machining center into a hybrid system using directed energy deposition. DMG Mori Seiki followed shortly thereafter by showing its Lasertech 65 hybrid system at EuroMold 2013.
This trickle of hybrid metal systems turned into a flood in 2014. Established industrial machine makers Mazak, Fonon Technologies, Sodick, Hurco, and Hermle announced plans for hybrid AM metal systems. Lesser-known companies such as RPM Innovations and Flexible Robotic Environment emerged with new metal or metal hybrid systems developed over a period of several years.
The promise of combining near-net-shape metal deposition with precision machining is immense, but still unproven. Potential issues include the quality of the metallurgical bond between layers, control of the microstructure, and complex programming and optimizing of toolpaths. Also, fine metal powder is at odds with the operation of precision machine parts, which can potentially accelerate wear and cause other problems. With cutting fluids and metal chips, the recycling of expensive powder could be problematic.
HP Multi Jet Fusion
HP introduced a new technology called Multi Jet Fusion in October 2014. It produces parts from thermoplastic powder that resembles laser sintering, but without a laser. The process uses HP thermal inkjet arrays to print fusing and detailing agents onto thin layers of thermoplastic powder. An energy source is used to fuse the areas where the agents were deposited.
The inkjet arrays can deposit 30 million droplets per second across each 25 mm of area, which means the process is fast. Test parts—gears—produced by HP took three hours using Multi Jet Fusion. The same parts required 38 hours using laser sintering and 83 hours using FDM.
The edges of the parts are crisp, the features are well defined, and areas that are supposed to be flat are flat. Multi Jet Fusion is capable of producing multicolor parts—something that has not been done before with nylon AM. Bringing together this speed, part quality, and multicolor using thermoplastic materials is a first in the AM industry.
The AM industry will better understand the impact of Multi Jet Fusion after customers have used the machine. The technology could compete with conventional plastics processing, such as injection molding, for certain types of parts and quantities, disrupting both the 3D printing and plastics processing industries.
Emerging Processes and Materials
High speed sintering (HSS) is a combination powder bed fusion and binder jetting that was developed at Loughborough University and now at the University of Sheffield. The process is somewhat similar to HP Multi Jet Fusion. Instead of using a laser, print heads selectively deposit infrared-absorbing ink onto a powder bed. Infrared lamps irradiate the entire surface of the bed, and the areas of the bed that have been printed absorb sufficient energy to melt the underlying powder.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Lockheed Martin have developed a technology called Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM). Machine tool maker Cincinnati Inc. is further developing and commercializing the BAAM technology. BAAM is a material extrusion process, but it extrudes thermoplastic at a rate of about 15.9 kg per hour. The build volume of the BAAM prototype is 2.4 × 2.4 × 2.4 m and the next-generation prototypes will be even larger. The nozzle is capable of extruding a variety of materials, including PEKK, ULTEM, and carbon- and fiber-reinforced ABS. The BAAM system uses the same plastic pellets used in injection molding, making materials for the process relatively inexpensive.
A foundation patent for selective laser melting (metal powder bed fusion), held by the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology, will expire in December 2016. This may lead to a new wave of manufacturers entering the metal powder bed market. However, the technical barriers to entry are much higher than for the material extrusion, vat photopolymerization, and even polymer laser sintering.
The number of third-party AM material suppliers is increasing steadily, especially of metal powders. Nanosteel, CVMR Corporation, ATI Specialty Products, Sandvik, Erasteel, and Carpenter are a few of the metal powder producers. Diamond Plastics and 3DP Materials have joined the ranks of suppliers of polymers for industrial AM systems. Others include Oxford Performance Materials, SABIC, Viridis3D, DSM Somos, Advanced Laser Materials, CRP Technology, Exceltec, and Arkema.
Graphene and graphite are hot areas of development in AM. Researchers at Imperial College London created a graphene paste and extruded it on a 3D printer. 3D Graphtech Industries and Australia’s CSIRO have teamed to research graphene for 3D printing. Graphoid Inc. announced that it would build an atomization plant for graphene-based powders. Graphene 3D and Taulman 3D are co-developing a graphene-enhanced nylon filament, scheduled for commercial availability this year.
Impressive new markets are emerging for AM, and several existing markets are developing rapidly. Among them are the printing of living tissue, flight-critical parts for the aerospace industry, and interesting tooling applications. Work in these areas has been underway for years, but momentum has increased in the recent past.
Developing a capability to print living tissue is not something that happens overnight, or even in several years. Yet the steady march toward commercial bioprinting continued in 2014, with many notable milestones. One startup company, TeVido Biodevices, plans to 3D print skin and fat grafts using the recipient’s own cells following breast surgery. The PrintAlive Bioprinter from MaRS Innovations, still in development, is said to be capable of printing skin cells, including hair follicles and sweat glands. Organovo has printed living liver tissue for medical and drug research and clinical trials using a 3D printer that it has been developing and using for years.
GE Aviation is making history with its well-documented development of fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine. The company is building a $50 million production plant in Auburn, AL, and will be producing up to 40,000 fuel nozzles per year using metal AM systems. GE is also building a $140 million Additive Development Center in Cincinnati. Using laser sintering equipment, Boeing has been quietly producing environmental control system ducting for many military and commercial aircraft for years. More than 100,000 production parts have been installed.
These companies are not alone. Nearly all major aerospace OEMs, including Airbus, Bell Helicopter, GKN Aerospace, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, MTU Aero Engines, Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, Raytheon, and Rolls-Royce, have built infrastructures within their corporations to evaluate and implement AM technologies. The sky is the limit for AM in aerospace, where the attributes of near-free complexity, near-net-shape production, and low piece-part volumes are a perfect fit.
Perhaps more than any other major OEM, Airbus is pushing the limits of AM, especially in the production of complex metal parts. A complex and structural topology-optimized metal cabin bracket first flew on an Airbus A350 in June 2014. The company has worked closely with Laser Zentrum Nord GmbH (LZN) in the design and production of metal parts. Experts at LZN have used advanced methods of topology optimization to reduce material and weight in designs, sometimes by more than 50%.
The company has also done considerable work with the design and production of plastic AM parts for its aircraft. It has manufactured and is flying 45,000–60,000 different types of plastic brackets, clips, and other devices for holding cables, wires, and hoses in place. The first few thousand were produced in ULTEM 9085 on FDM equipment.
We live in an era where science fiction becomes reality on a routine basis, and perhaps we become desensitized to the wonder of these developments. One such amazing development occurred in 2014. In collaboration with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Made in Space designed and built a material extrusion system that operates in low/zero gravity. The 3D printer was launched in September 2014 and installed on the International Space Station (ISS). Twenty-five test parts (14 unique shapes) were produced and delivered to NASA Marshall for inspection in mid-March 2015.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is also developing a 3D printer for the ISS, and is scheduled to deliver its system to the ISS in June 2015. NASA, ESA, and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation have launched R&D initiatives to develop AM systems capable of printing metal parts in space.
In the 1990s and 2000s, rapid tooling was a promise that AM was unable to deliver. Most tooling initiatives fell short on speed, cost, surface finish, and dimensional accuracy. Meanwhile, the toolmaking industry, using increasingly advanced CNC machines and software, became faster and more competitive.
CNC-machined tooling remains the preferred option for most production applications, but AM has crept back into the picture. Many toolmakers are adding metal AM to their capabilities. Rowenta, a German manufacturer of clothes irons, uses metal tool inserts made on Concept Laser systems to injection-mold plastic parts. The inserts include conformal cooling channels that improve part accuracy and reduce molding cycle time. Unilever and Worrel Design are two companies that are now producing mold inserts on the Connex system from Stratasys for prototype injection-molded parts.
Emerging Business Models
For many, 3D printing has created a new way of thinking and conducting business. It has become the genesis for fresh ideas, startup companies, and new business models. Also, it is leading to new types of educational and training programs that offer hands-on learning, experimentation, creativity, and invention. Many individuals and organizations have launched new types of products, services, and businesses that were unimaginable 15 years ago.
Maker spaces are resources that have grown like wildfire. Sometimes called hacker spaces, they are physical locations where makers meet, socialize, and collaborate. 3D printing is often the focus, along with software, open hardware, and conventional machine shop tools. These open community labs have emerged in cities around the world, as well as in schools and educational institutions.
Online 3D printing marketplaces and communities are also growing. These websites include libraries of digital content, available for purchase as a dataset or as a 3D-printed model. Better-known marketplaces, such as Shapeways, Thingiverse, i.Materialise, and Sculpteo, are being joined by such names as Threeding, Layer by Layer, Cuoyo, 3DLT, Archetype Z Studios, 3DShare, and Rinkak, to name a few. Many of these marketplaces offer business-to-consumer commerce, while others—particularly the larger marketplaces—sell to both individuals and businesses.
HP is not the only large manufacturer to enter the AM industry. Roland, Dremel, and Ricoh each announced or have introduced 3D printers. Kodak created a new business unit for 3D printing. Adobe added features to Photoshop CC that it hopes will help streamline the preparation of data for 3D printing. Microsoft is promoting its new 3MF file format as an alternative to the STL and AMF formats. Dell, Home Depot, Office Depot, and Staples are selling 3D printers.
Never before have we had access to such powerful tools—and so many of them—for design, product development, and manufacturing. This has resulted in creativity and the expression of ideas that are at an all-time high. The breadth of new products, services, startup businesses, and entrepreneurship, with funding to support them, is incredibly exciting to so many around the world. And, we believe we have only seen the “tip of the iceberg,” so stayed tuned.
This article was first published in the May 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.
Published Date : 2015-05-01