Additive manufacturing is making its path into industrial applications. Today the challenge for 3D printing actors is to democratize the use of additive manufacturing by capturing industrial applications. There is a long way to go to drive wider adoption of 3D printing given the jungle of material and technological choices to be addressed. The main task today is to demonstrate to end-users that 3D can be integrated in their manufacturing process.
For the past decade, additive manufacturing has been steadily moving from prototyping to industrial production. There has been tremendous progress in parameters like process reliability, printing speed, material availability, cost per part reduction and ability to meet the requirements of industrial end-customers. Early adopters have opened paths to a new industrial revolution by developing 3D printed functional parts for specific demanding applications in aeronautics, aerospace, medical and automotive industries.
Nonetheless, the potential of additive manufacturing remains largely untapped, and there are still countless possibilities for new industrial application development for 3D printing. To unleash this potential, key decision-makers should better understand the differences and advantages of manufacturing a part by injection molding or by printing. While it is easy to get information on processing industry grade materials by injection molding, expertise in processing 3D printed materials is still lacking. Will my printed part perform as well as my molded part? What is the difference in a particular material’s performance between these two processes? How should we select the best material to address complex and demanding shapes and technical requirements.
Co-development and combined expertise
Since its emergence a quarter century ago, additive manufacturing has seen continuous innovation with rapid performance increases, both in materials and in printers. An ever-enlarging potential of applications is inspiring, but at the same time, this high-pace innovation causes uncertainty. To accelerate the adoption of 3D printing, the roadmap is clear: material producers, machine manufacturers and final customers must work in a hand-to-hand approach with the common objective to produce, gather and share knowledge and data to achieve emergence of a real state-of-the-art technology.
A concrete experiment has been taking place since 2017 at miniFactory, a printer manufacturer specializing in high-performance polymers based in Finland. In the hunt for new partners and solutions, the company learned about Kepstan® PEKK by Arkema and was immediately impressed by its performance in their system. Kepstan® PEKK would meet the needs of their aerospace clients interested in extreme materials adapted to the harsh conditions of space. Kepstan® PEKK appeared to have the right combination of strength, toughness, high use temperature and easy processing. However, the decision to opt for PEKK 3D printed parts rather than molded parts should be based on complete material data sheet consideration with summaries of the performance and technical characteristics in any circumstances, including extreme ones such as in Earth orbit.
Material data sheet for PEKK polymer
So, for a year, Arkema as the supplier of PEKK, Armor Group as the filament manufacturer, and miniFactory have maintained an ongoing exchange to assess Kepstan® PEKK properties in real applications and generate a relevant datasheet. However, it is a long and difficult process, as explains Olli Pihlajamäki, Sales and Marketing Director at miniFactory: “Producing a material data sheet implies running series of lab tests with printed specimen in order to find the best combination of mechanical properties and printing quality. PEKK material data sheet is now available and it can allow customers to learn about how it performs when printed with our printer and how it can be applied to their needs.” So, to succeed, each of the various parties must accept their share.
During this on-going assessment process, many questions have emerged, in particular about Kepstan® PEKK performance in extreme conditions such as cold and radiated interstellar medium. Convinced of its responsibility in this collective endeavor, Arkema has committed its engineers to conduct full tests on specific topics such as vacuum outgassing, isotropic properties and is further planning to look into PEKK’s low temperatures properties. These tests will provide essential data for Olli, miniFactory and their clients to be able to use PEKK in their manufacturing.