By Nirup Nagabandi, Ph.D., Vice President of Materials and Process Engineering, Essentium
Imagine you’re an apparel manufacturer. You need machines to make your clothes. But the machines you can buy will only make clothes out of fabrics sold by the companies that sell the machines. You can’t use cotton, wool, or polyester. You have to use the custom fabrics sold by the machine maker.
It sounds ridiculous. But in the world of additive manufacturing, it’s a reality.
Additive manufacturing is different from traditional manufacturing. In industrial additive manufacturing, “closed” materials are prevalent. If Company X makes a 3D printer, it will usually only work with materials also sold by Company X. That way, Company X creates a dependency on its proprietary materials and ensures a steady stream of revenue. It establishes a customer base that’s reliant on its materials — and no one else’s.
This is narrow, short-term thinking and is detrimental to the 3D printing industry in many ways. For instance, an additive manufacturer’s material options are limited, which limits the ability to create parts with specific characteristics and application requirements. A prime example is the space industry, where certain components must be manufactured in distinct colors, such as bright red. “No-fly” parts — parts that must be removed before launch — must be red so they can be quickly and accurately identified.
This hampers innovation. When printer manufacturers control the materials ecosystem, the companies that do the printing have difficulty exploring and integrating new materials — even new colors. For example, say a 3D printing company has an idea for making no-fly parts better and cheaper. If the company can access only five materials and five colors — none of which meet no-fly part requirements — the idea will never reach the market.
In this way, the prevalence of proprietary materials holds back the 3D printing industry. Engineers can’t be as creative when working within a limited ecosystem. There might be cutting-edge materials, processes, and technologies they can’t use. They can’t explore new ideas that might benefit the industry. It’s a problem.
Open source opens the way to innovation
The good news is that the 3D printing industry is finally embracing open-source development. Third-party material developers are on the rise, and there is now a much larger array of resins and filaments on the market that can be used with 3D printers. Better still, the number of 3D printers compatible with these open-source materials is also rising. This growing flexibility is helping to break boundaries and drive innovation in additive manufacturing.
Just five years ago, there were only a handful of materials available. You could count them on your fingers and toes. Now, there are far more. Thanks to open platforms, 3D printing companies have access to hundreds of different materials. This will spur innovation and move the industry forward.
Materials diversity opens a wide range of options for 3D printing. It enables researchers, engineers, and manufacturers to experiment with different materials, compositions, and properties. It helps push the limits of what can be achieved in additive manufacturing. Materials diversity also promotes collaboration and knowledge-sharing within the additive community. When materials are open and accessible, researchers and practitioners can freely exchange information and expertise.
This new trend toward collective thinking is accelerating innovation and helping the industry as a whole. For example, researchers can now quickly test and iterate their designs using different materials. This agility allows for more rapid identification of optimal material-property combinations and faster time-to-market for new products.
Another key benefit of an open materials ecosystem is that it contributes to cost reduction. Materials readily available from multiple suppliers promote healthy competition and can lead to lower material costs. When manufacturers are no longer locked into proprietary and potentially expensive materials, they can choose materials from different sources, enabling them to find cost-effective solutions.
Cost-effectiveness comes not only through collaboration but also by breaking boundaries. On incumbent solutions, if a user needs a highly chemical-resistant material, they use PEEK or maybe PEI. However, if an open platform is embraced, the new emerging PP can be used, which is about 20 times cheaper.
For engineers, another important function is having composite materials, such as fiber-filled. Based on the material technology, fibers can be of varying lengths and open different applications and possibilities. If engineers are stuck with a closed ecosystem, new advanced materials are out of reach since new material development is costly, and one company cannot produce them all.
Challenges remain, but they’re solvable
Despite its many benefits, the adoption of open materials still faces obstacles. Perhaps the biggest is standardization. Different suppliers often produce materials with variations in composition, quality, and performance, which makes it difficult to ensure consistent results.
In dentistry, for instance, some strict parameters and standards must be met when dental implements are 3D printed. These implements directly contact a patient’s mouth, so there is little room for experimentation. Industry-wide efforts are needed to establish material standards, testing methods, and certifications to give users confidence in open materials’ quality and compatibility.
In terms of compatibility, open materials need to be compatible with a wide range of 3D printers. For example, based on a machine’s extruder and motion control specifications, the flow ratio that needs to be adjusted will be different, and a material designed for open platform use must accommodate a wide variety of flow ratios without oozing or retracting.
As another example, the extruder drivers on Bowden machines vary vastly from single-gear direct drive to double-gear, and materials must accommodate all force and pinch levels without changing the filament quality. Similarly, powder machines are designed with certain raster speeds and energy source ramp-ups and downs, and materials must accommodate all these variances across hardware.
Considering these subtle yet critical properties, ensuring compatibility and optimizing material properties for different printer models can be tricky. Collaboration between material developers and printer manufacturers is crucial to establishing guidelines and quality-control protocols for material performance across various printer systems.
The bottom line is that the need for open materials will only increase as the additive industry expands and adoption becomes more widespread. Indeed, customers will start demanding openness due to the potential for innovative applications. A robust, open industry will benefit everyone. No user wants to fall behind because they invested in a capital-intensive closed platform and cannot access the latest developments in the industry.
And it’s only a matter of time before even the closed players realize the advantages that come with a wide range of materials and capabilities. When that happens, there will be no limits to where this industry can go.