INSIGHT: 3D printing and polymers

06 June 2012 14:56  [Source: ICIS news]

By Cuckoo James

3D printer (image courtesy Freedom of Creation)LONDON (ICIS)--3D printing is about to change the very meaning of the word ‘manufacturer’ and potentially the traditional distribution channel, especially in plastics.

It is an invention of the 20th century (yes, the 20th century) which, unusually, has only sparked the public’s interest in the 21st.

Layer by layer, 3D printers deposit ‘ink’ onto a surface to create the plastic dashboard of a car or even a cup cake.

But in this case, ‘ink’ can be any raw material. The first ‘ink’ used in a commercial 3D printer was, not surprisingly, a plastic raw material or polymer.

Polymers widely used in 3D printing now even include acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). In most cases polymers with a low melt index are preferred.

UK-headquartered Bits from Bytes sells 3D printers that can utilise high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low density polyethylene (LDPE).

The firm even sells 1kg allotments of ABS and polylactic acid (PLA) on its website, and recommends printing with ABS and PLA before attempting HDPE or LDPE printouts.

Such a remarkably hands-on technology is bound to become commonplace among amateurs and industrial plastics manufacturers.

No wonder Wohlers Associates, a research organisation dedicated to 3D printing, puts the compound growth rate of the layer-by-layer production process, better known as additive manufacturing, at 29.4% in 2011.

And the industry is set to grow at a double-digit pace, says the company’s president Terry Wohlers.

Thinking one step ahead, the option to go 3D could blur the lines between the plastics manufacturer and the consumer.

3D printers could fit into a microwave oven or be as big as a small room. The difference is you or I could own one without much investment.

Entrepreneur and inventor Chuck Hull co-founded 3D Systems, the firm that would be the first to commercialise 3D printing in 1986.

The company now offers 3D printers or ‘Cubes’ starting from relatively inexpensive prices of just over $1,000 (€800).

The ‘Cubes’ come with user-friendly software to design models that could be easily printed using tough recyclable plastics.

Cube 3D printers are described by the creators as “the first consumer 3D printer for children ages 8 to 80 years”.

The new breed of consumer-manufacturers can also send their 3D designs to a 3D printing service website, have it printed out on industrial 3D printers and shipped to them.

Besides the potential shift in amateur or small-scale plastics production, how does 3D printing impact the way traditional plastics goods manufacturers work?

For the sceptics, the idea is only as far-fetched as books being churned out on the Amazon Kindle e-book reader rather than as paperbacks.

Any digital technology, put in the hands of consumers has kick-started a mini revolution, but consultants in the polymer sector are quick to dismiss any large-scale shift in the supply chain.

The technology is not (yet) ripe for use in large-volume manufacturing because of cost pressures, according to the experts.

“I doubt 3D printing would be used as a mass production manufacturing as injection moulding would be cheaper, but it will be used for prototype production or low volume production where the cost to produce a mould is too high,” says consultant Paul Cherry.

In traditional injection moulding, moulds are designed and heated thermoplastic is forced into the mould to make the final product.

However, prototypes themselves can be made faster and cheaper using 3D printers.

But because polymers would be used in 3D printers mainly to make prototypes for larger-volume conventional injection moulding, the effect on polymer supply and demand is also likely to be limited.

“Given that 3D printing is likely to be used for prototype or small volume manufacturing, I doubt it will have a big effect on the supply demand balance for any polymer [especially a high volume polymer such as PE] as the volumes will be small compared to the overall market for the polymer,” Cherry says.

Janne Kyttanen, founder and creative director of Freedom of Creation, however, thinks 3D printing could change the logistics and distribution businesses.

“3D printing techniques allow you to produce things locally, send your designs across the world via email, and have no stock,” he says.

At Freedom of Creation, which Kyttanen describes as a company “busy with a new industrial revolution”, designers use computer-aided design (CAD) programmes to design and then upload files to a 3D printing machine to start production.

“The very nature of 3D printing means that we do not have to invest in expensive moulds or manufacturing processes and we can ‘print’ our designs wherever we identify partners in any country in the world,” he says.

This enables the company to store the product digitally and “produce on demand anywhere in the globe we want”.

He continues: “It is very clear to see how this can reduce the entire planet from excessive stock, transportation, labour, distribution costs.”

($1 = €0.80)

By: Cuckoo James
+44 (0) 208 652 3214

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