It’s the materials that matter

15 June 2016

It’s the materials, not the machines that are going to change industrial perceptions of 3D printing and where it takes us all in the future. Stephen Holmes tells us more

An unfiltered chore of London living involves the creatures that you fi nd on the city’s public transport. After a few years of living in the Capital your brain slowly learns to shut off from other travellers — their strange dress habits, their barking coughs, their uncompromisingly loud conversations.

It was the latter that broke through my wall of indifference earlier this month, when two pinstripe-suited gentlemen on the Underground making their way to a meeting in the City started talking about the ‘trouble HP is in’.

The pair bounced morbid facts about the tech company’s recent problems back and forth across the carriage, before eventually landing on its recent arrival into 3D printing.

Since October 2014 HP has been promising a huge change to the 3D printing sector, one that would have manufacturers clamouring to build end-use-parts on the beds of its new machines.

Finally unveiled at the start of this month [you can read our full preview here], this new ‘MultiJet Fusion’ (MJF) technology stopped the negativity of the two men’s conversation, one even suggesting that the sales of new machines to the manufacturing industry could prove to be the company’s saviour.

As most pub bores will point out, it was ink that was the big money spinner for HP’s 2D revolution a few decades back — low cost printers but with costly CMYK cartridges as consumables.

To date, this really hasn’t been the case in the 3D printing industry, with the printers themselves proving the main cost.

Although there is still a long way to go in terms of resolution, speed and repeatability, 2016 has seen the focus move to consumables, largely due to the arrival of open source materials.

The term ‘open source’ most likely strikes fear into the hearts of the ‘Big Two’ 3D printing companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys.

Since 3D printing began as a niche process, both companies have held on tightly to their lucrative supply and distribution channels for materials.

However, with a boom in the number of machines in circulation, the consumables market is looking much livelier, attracting interest from major plastics and chemical engineering companies.

Most expectant punters are looking to HP’s move into the market, with its industrial consumables knowhow, to light the touch paper.

Others have viewed newcomers Carbon with a similar glint in their eye. Launching off the back of its super speedy 3D printing, Carbon’s focus is not to continue shaving milliseconds off build times, but to use its speed to enable more functional materials to print.

With a large section of its Silicon Valley headquarters resembling a chemistry lab, white lab coat laden teams test materials with incredible properties. Strong materials.Heat resistant materials. Elastic materials. All determined to be end-use-part materials.

At its launch, the Carbon M1 3D printer was unveiled as a machine that users will rent (no huge initial outlay). Alongside 7 materials from Carbon, the promise of potentially unlimited options from open source suppliers was announced, with chemicals giant Kodak Eastman being the first to partner up through Carbon’s ‘app store’ model.

While HP’s MJF method is a world away from Carbon’s CLIP technology, it has a similar calibre of colossal chem’ companies lined up for its own “vibrant open market ecosystem”, including Evonik, BASF, Arkema, Lehmann and Voss & Co.

Elsewhere, companies such as DSM Somos have for years developed a wide range of materials specifi cally for SLA 3D printing.

Despite losing a ruling against 3D Systems in 2014, new 3D printer companies arriving to the market open up new possibilities for consumer choice.

Metals 3D printing, with the goal of end-use-parts, has long needed defi nitive material properties, provenance and traceability, making open source consumables a common fixture.

The plastics market is finally looking in the same direction — to give customers exactly what they want, not a ballpark substitute that might vary with each batch.

Yet this doesn’t end with the entire market opening up. Stratasys and 3D Systems’ arguments are still partly valid – that as manufacturers of the 3D printers, they produce the highest quality materials for their processes.

New materials are frequently released by 3D printer vendors, and the likes of Stratasys proudly produce bespoke materials to customer request out of its extensive R&D labs.

However, you’ve got to wonder how long those consumables monopolies will last as the industry opens up, and what impact this will have?

While the businessmen continued to debate the markets for machine sales (America? Germany? What will China do?) they failed to note that the move to an open materials market is the more important factor – one that could lead to giant steps in advancements and wider adoption of all the vendors’ 3D printers.

Although I didn’t pipe up to tell them this. It’s London, and such an interjection is frowned upon on the Tube.


GET IN TOUCH: Stephen Holmes is Digital Media Editor at DEVELOP3D. His recently acquired puppy, Mycroft, is a glaring reminder that technology cannot do everything for us, but can make for an excellent chew toy.
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or say hello on twitter @swearstoomuch

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