INSIGHT: 3D Printing: ‘The New Revolution’ begins

10 July 2013 16:29  [Source: ICIS news]

By Matt Tudball

LONDON (ICIS)--“The Industrial Revolution is over in the next 30 years,” said Mark Stevenson, futurologist and closing speaker on the first day of the European Association of Chemical Distributors 2013 conference in Hamburg in June.

A brave and sweeping statement and one which begs the question 'so what will come next?’ a question which Stevenson answered in his talk: 'The Future, and what to do about it’.

According to Stevenson, three-dimensional (3D) printing will be the biggest growth market in the next 30 years. And he is not the only one who believes this.

The London Design Museum will launch a new exhibition later this month entitled 'The Future is Here: The New Industrial Revolution' which will invite visitors to see, touch and explore the world of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. The exhibition aims to show how “the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred”.

With the launch in London on Tuesday of the UK’s first ‘high street’ 3D printer, for just £700 ($1,044) including a cartridge of polylactic acid (PLA), the budding home designer can now design and print off their own creations from the comfort of their home CAD (computer aided design) studio.

To date, 3D printing, some of which employs acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), acrylonitrile (ACN) and nylon as printing material, has been used to create anything from seamless dresses at Paris Fashion Week to full-sized and fully-functioning 3D printed ABS cars, as well as more controversial items such as the world’s first 3D printed working gun. Most of these items have been printed in 2013.

Furthermore, 3D printing is not being limited to the small or medium sized designers and businesses that may see it initially as a novelty. In terms of industrial usage, companies such as General Motors (GM) and Ford Motors are embracing the printing method to rapidly develop new prototypes for their vehicles at a fraction of the cost of traditional prototyping. 3D printing also reduces the time from design to realisation considerably.

GM said rapid prototyping enables designers and engineers to quickly see, touch and test versions of individual components and systems in precise one-third scale and full-size models without having to make changes to production tooling, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When you need to get intricate, fully functional prototype parts quickly, nothing beats rapid prototyping,” Todd Pawlik, chief engineer of Chevrolet mid- and full-size cars told ICIS on 12 June. “Our ability to rapidly fabricate inexpensive prototype parts throughout a vehicle enables key components to get confirmed earlier so that we can go from computer models to production-calibre parts.”

The growth predictions for the 3D printing market are also impressive.

In the UK alone, the home 3D printing market is expected to be worth £6bn by 2019 according to Claudio Noble of iMakr, the world’s largest 3D printing store located in central London.

Further afield, reported in June that the CEO of Beijing’s Asian Manufacturing Association (AMA), Luo Jun, expects that "revenues from Chinese 3D printing companies are expected to reach yuan (CNY)10bn ($1.6bn) within 3 years".

Chinese universities are offering courses in 3D printing, and, as Noble points out, a lot of the current petrochemical material used in the 3D printing process is coming from China. The Chinese are embracing 3D printing in a big way, perhaps an important sign given the the country’s manufacturing capability.

In America, USA Today reported on 20 March that the New York City Investment Fund has extended a loan to a 3D design and print company in the city for over $1m. Back in China, the AMA plans to build 10 3D printing institutes in cities across China to further spread the country’s expertise in the application.

So what does all this hype and global buy-in mean for the petrochemicals industry?

It seems that 3D printers are able to print in a surprising range of materials, from chocolate to gold via living tissue cells, but as Claudio Noble explains, the current use of petrochemicals in the industry is still fairly small.

At present, PLA is the cheaper material being used in printing, as it is developed from corn starch. Petrochemical usage is slightly smaller in the current home printing market compared to PLA, but materials such as ABS offer better quality finishes on printed goods.

Another area that is keeping 3D printing chemicals in the speciality category and out of the mainstream is that each different printer, or printer provider, such as Makerbot or Stratasys, has its own company-specific polymer or copolymer, such as PC/ABS. “There is no universal filament,” Noble said, adding that the majority of ABS currently used in the printers sold in the iMakr store are from Chinese producers. 

At present, mainstream chemicals, such as commodity extrusion grade ABS, are not being used in the 3D printing world, so increased demand in the smaller to medium-sized industry sectors that are using petrochemicals in 3D printing are not generating the levels of demand that would make larger ABS producers sit up and take notice.

None of the European ABS producers ICIS spoke to are involved in the production of materials that are going into 3D printing.

So if 3D printing really is the future, then what, as Stevenson asked the assembled crowd of European chemical distributors, are we, the chemical industry, going to do about it?

One suggestion could be that preparedness is key.

It would be wise of producers, traders and distributors of ABS, ACN, polycarbonates and nylon (and maybe more in the future) at least to be aware of the potentially huge global market growing up around them.

They need to keep up to date with developments in the 3D printing world as it is embraced by an ever-growing number of companies, industries, cities and countries

And they need to think about how they, as an integral part of the chain that delivers to this new industry its life source – the materials that make the products – could develop their business to best serve it.

So in that way, if and when the Revolution comes, they can be ready for it.

($1 = £0.67) ($1 = CNY6.13)

Additional reporting by Mark Yost

Read Paul Hodges’ Chemicals and the Economy blog
Bookmark John Richardson and Malini Hariharan’s Asian Chemical Connections blog

By: Matt Tudball
+44 208 652 3214

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