3D printing of composites is a rapidly emerging area. New entrants, notable research developments, large funding, and acquisitions have all been observed over the past few years. But questions still stand around where the market penetration will be and which of the competing processes and business models will gain the upper hand.
JEC World is the most notable annual event for the composite industry. 2019 saw a sharp rise in 3D printing presence and 2020 is set to be the same. 3 of the most notable entrants for their 2020 "start-up booster" and 2 from the 2019 pool are some of the most exciting 3D printing start-ups around. All of these and more are profiled and benchmarked by IDTechEx as part of their report "3D Printing Composites 2020-2030".
Overall, IDTechEx calculated that this industry received over $100m in investment in 2019. There are very good reasons for both the composite and 3D printing industry to be excited.
Logos of 3D Printing Composite companies selected for JEC World 2019 and 2020 start-up booster. All of these and many more interviewed and profiled in "3D Printing Composites 2020-2030"
The current focus of these market entrants is on fiber reinforced polymer, either full continuous fibers or short fibers (ideally aligned as some players demonstrate). There are differing methods, particularly for the print head and the point of resin introduction. There are also many challenges, most notably what percentage of fiber can be introduced, the quality of the interface, and the type of polymer matrix that can be used. This is in addition to the usual challenges of 3D printing, namely rate, build-space, cost, mechanical performance, software and more.
The software and material are key considerations to advance this industry. Many players are looking to differentiate by offering targeted solutions.
Why should the composite industry care?
Fiber reinforced polymers are a relatively mature industry in a wide range of high-volume applications. The predominant advantage is lightweighting, which is an ever-pressing demand across multiple sectors. There are still numerous limitations including recycling, repairing, and manufacturing rate but the most notable is cost.
The industry is ripe for automation to play a greater role. The raw materials are already expensive (particularly for carbon fiber) but the manufacturing cost takes the parts to an industry that few applications can tolerate. We are already seeing improvement on this; significant manufacturing steps have been taken for high volume thermoset parts and the rise of thermoplastic composites is being coupled with more demonstrations in pick-and-place robotics and beyond. However, for small or medium volume parts the cost can remain prohibitively high - players estimate the parts to be 25x material costs in certain scenarios. This cost impact comes from the prototyping, tooling, skilled labour requirements, and more.
3D printing can help enable this. From prototyping and design freedom to small volume part production and manufacturing the tool itself there is a huge amount of scope.
This report goes into detail as to the types of composites 3D printing, the players and the applications that are being achieved.
Why should the 3D printing industry be excited?
The 3D printing has gone through its period of hype and is constantly gaining market growth. The material toolkit is also expanding from plastics to metals, ceramics and even electronics and biological material.
The advantages from polymer 3D printing is obvious. One notable challenge is the performance that can be achieved with polymer parts and how that can be improved. Composites can provide the solution as well as allowing the design advantages to reach their real potential by manipulating the anisotropic properties.
There are numerous players making bespoke hardware and software. They are approaching this by being a hardware supplier (with or without a material supply lock-in), a service bureau, or through subscription models. There are a wide range of pricing strategies and an increasingly overcrowded IP landscape.
The materials should not be overlooked - with certain players exclusively acting as material suppliers. The majority are targeting thermoplastics, for obvious reasons, with only a select few looking at thermoset variants. Large players are releasing bespoke pre-impregnated filaments as they look to capitalise on this market.
Overall many 3D polymer printers are looking to see if composites could take the industry to a new level.
"3D Printing Composites 2020-2030" looks at every market player and technology. This gives the reader a comprehensive overview of this rapidly emerging field. Work is highlighted from:
- The most established hardware players, such as Markforged.
- Exciting start-ups gaining traction - including those predominantly working in stealth mode
- Research divisions including both national institute, such as DLR in Germany, and large companies, like Toray's innovative work.
- Market launches from established 3D printing players, such as EOS, and material giants, like Owens Corning.
Top Image: Wide range of materials, hardware, and parts. All photos by IDTechEx Analysts. For more see "3D Printing Composites 2020-2030".