FocusEuropean producers must not miss the boat on 3D printing

24 July 2013 16:41  [Source: ICIS news]

By Matt Tudball

LONDON (ICIS)--European petrochemical producers need to be part of the rapidly-growing industry for additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, according to David Bott, director, innovation programmes and communications at the UK’s Technology Strategy Board.

Speaking to ICIS at the opening of the Design Museum London's new exhibition, entitled “The Future Is Here: A New Industrial Revolution”, Bott said that there is a place for European suppliers and distributors of materials such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and nylon, which are widely used in additive manufacturing, in this emerging market.

Asking if the petrochemical world needs to be aware of 3D printing, Bott replied “Absolutely.”

“The 3D printing business will take off, it’s as simple as that,” he said, adding that the timeline to 3D printing reaching the scale of mass production could be as short as three to five years 

Whilst a wide variety of materials are currently being used to print 3D objects on ever-advancing printer technology, there is definitely a place for petrochemicals to be a part of the additive manufacturing boom.

Presently it is more likely that the grades of petrochemicals used in 3D printing would be of a specialist grade, due to the specifics of the printer manufacturers, and therefore may be more costly to produce. However, this may change as the industry takes off.

Bott said, “One day, when the market rises to meet the volume [of materials used in 3D printing], it will become cheaper. I think there is real opportunity for polymer producers to produce a grade which is optimised for additive manufacturing.

“The machines [printers] are converging to a standard format. When there were lots of different machines it was difficult to know what to do. But now, if you are selling a less than $1,000 machine in Maplin, there is going to be a lot more people wanting [petrochemical-based printing material],” he added.

Whilst many active in the 3D printing sphere are looking at alternative, or more environmentally friendly, materials for the new industry, there is currently still a need for petrochemical-based raw materials in the additive manufacturing market.

A lot of 3D printing take place now is on a smaller scale - limited by the size of the actual printer itself, even though bigger and better printers are being designed on an almost monthly basis - and is used in rapid prototyping areas such as automotives. Rapid prototyping that uses three-dimensional (3D) printers to produce prototype parts from plastic resins.

However, as the technology progresses and people want to start producing durable consumer goods with a high quality finish,  the need for petrochemical polymers will go up, at least in the short term.

“[With current] biologically-sourced polymers… you tend to end up with an oxygen atom in the chain, and that produces weakness. The great thing about petrochemicals is you have a purely hydrocarbon chain. It’s just a matter of the base chemistry. At some point, biologically-sourced materials will be a hydrocarbon equivalent, but it’s going to take a long while and you’ve got to make a lot of it," Bott said.  

Global forecasts for additive manufacturing continue to predict strong growth for the sector. In a report on Disruptive Technologies issued in May, consultancy firm McKinsey predicted that 3D printing could generate economic impact of $230bn -$550bn/year by 2025.

There is a share of that windfall that could benefit European petrochemical producers and suppliers.

Bott said: “[For 3D printing to work], you’re going to have to have a strong relationship between the polymer supplier and the machine maker. Given that the machine makers exist in the UK and Europe, I would suggest that there’s an opportunity for the raw materials producers to grasp some of the action back.”

There is still a long way to go in the development of the 3D printing industry, in terms of materials being used to print and the printers printing the finished products, and overall, additive manufacturing does not pose a direct threat to existing manufacturing, according to Bott.

However, there is still definitely room for 3D printing in the manufacturing world.

“We reckon you might get a 5-10% penetration [of the manufacturing sector] in the next three-to-five years but that’s actually a [very] large market, so it’s worth going after,” Bott concluded.

The Technology Strategy Board is the UK’s innovation agency, and is sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
By: Matt Tudball
+44 208 652 3214

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