How 3D Printing Will Energize The Chemical Industry - Part 1: Key Opportunity Areas

Stefan Guertzgen

It’s been nearly 30 years since Chuck Hull, the “Thomas Edison” of the 3D printing industry, introduced the first 3D printer. Since that time, 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, has been used to create everything from shoes to airplane parts to even food. Although issues such as durability and speed have kept 3D printing from being used in mainstream manufacturing to date, the industry is making tremendous advancements.

The growing adoption of 3D printing by more markets is being driven by three primary developments. First, the cost of 3D printing is rapidly decreasing due to lower raw material costs, stronger competitive pressures, and technological advancements. According to a recent report by IBISWorld, the price of 3D printers is expected to fall 6.4% in 2016.

Second, printing is getting faster. Last year, startup company Carbon3D printed a palm-size geodesic sphere in a little over six minutes, which is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing solutions. The company’s unique printing approach applies ultraviolet light and oxygen to resin in a technique called Continuous Liquid Interface Production to form solid objects out of liquid. Traditional additive printing is getting faster as well.

The third driver of 3D printing growth is the ability of new printers to accommodate a wider variety of materials. Aided by innovations within the chemical industry, a broad range of polymers, resins, plasticizers, and other materials are being used create new 3D products.

While it is impossible to predict the long-term impact 3D printing will have on the world, the technology likely will transform at least some aspects of how nearly every company, in nearly every industry, does business. In fact, the chemical industry already has implemented 3D applications in the fields of research and development (R&D) and manufacturing.

Developing innovative feedstock and processes

Chemicals is a highly R&D focused industry. In 2014, $59 billion was invested in R&D to discover new ways to convert raw materials such as oil, natural gas, and water into more than 70,000 different products. There’s a vast opportunity for 3D printing to develop innovative feedstock and corresponding revenue in the chemical industry . While over 3,000 materials are used in conventional component manufacturing, only about 30 are available for 3D printing. To put this in perspective, the market for chemical powder materials is predicted to be over $630 million annually by 2020.

Plastics, resins, as well as metal powders or ceramic materials are already in use or under evaluation for printing prototypes, parts of industry assets, or semi-finished goods, particularly those that are complex to produce and only required in small batch sizes. Developing the right formulas to create these new materials is an area of constant innovation within chemicals, which will likely produce even more materials in the future. Below are a few examples of recent breakthroughs in new materials for 3D printing.

  • Covestro, a leader in polymer technology, is developing a range of filaments, powders, and liquid resins for all common 3D printing methods. From flexible thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) to high strength polycarbonate (PC), the company’s products feature a variety of properties like toughness and heat resistance as well as transparency and flexibility that support a number of new applications. Covestro also offers TPU powders for selective laser sintering (SLS), in which a laser beam is used to sinter the material.
  • 3M, together with its subsidiary Dyneon, recently filed a patent for using fluorinated polymers in 3D printing. There are many types of fluorinated polymers, including polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), commonly known as Teflon, which often is used in seals and linings and tends to generated waste in production. The ability to print fluorinated polymers means they can be manufactured quickly and affordably.
  • Wacker is testing 3D printing with silicones. The process is similar to traditional 3D printing, but uses a glass printing bed, a special silicone material with a high rate of viscosity, and UV light. The printer lays a thin layer of tiny silicone drops on the glass printing bed. The silicone is vulcanized using the UV light, resulting in smooth parts that are biocompatible, heat resistant, and transparent.

The chemical industry is also in the driver’s seat when it comes to process development. Today about 20 different processes exist that have one common characteristic – layered deposition of printer feed. The final product could be generated from melting thermoplastic resins (e.g. Laser Sinter Technology or Fused Deposition Modeling) or via (photo) chemical reaction such as stereolithography or multi-jet modeling. For both process types, the physical and chemical properties of feed materials are critical success factors, not only for processing but also for the quality of the finished product.

3D printing of laboratory equipment

Laboratory equipment used for chemical synthesis is expensive and often difficult to operate. Machinery and tools must be able to withstand multiple rounds of usage during the product development process. With 3D printing, some of the necessary equipment can be printed at an affordable cost within the lab. Examples of equipment already being created with 3D printing include custom-built laboratory containers that test chemical reaction and multi-angle light-scattering instruments used to determine the molecular weight of polymers. Some researchers are also using 3D printers to create blocks with chambers used to mix ingredients into new compounds.

3D printing for manufacturing maintenance and processes

In addition to printing equipment used in laboratories, some chemical manufacturers are using 3D printers for maintenance on process plant assets. For example, when an asset goes down due to a damaged engine valve, the replacement part can be printed onsite and installed in real time. Creating spare parts in-house can significantly reduce inventory costs and increase efficiency because there is no wait time for deliveries. Chemical manufactures are also started to print prototypes (e.g. micro-reactors) to simulate manufacturing processes.

For companies that don’t want to print the parts themselves, there is now an on-demand manufacturing network that will print and deliver parts as needed. UPS has introduced a fully distributed manufacturing platform that connects many of its stores with 3D printers. When needed, UPS and its partners print the customer-requested part and deliver it. Connecting demand with production capacity is known as the “Uber of manufacturing.”

While not all parts will be suitable for 3D printing and work still needs to be done in terms of durability and materials, the potential reduction in inventory costs is significant. In the United States alone, manufacturers and trade inventories were estimated at $1.8 trillion in August 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Reducing inventory by just two percent would produce a $36 billion savings.

For more about 3D printing in the chemical industry, stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog, which will address commercial benefits, risks, and an outlook into the future. In the meantime, download the free eBook 6 Surprising Ways 3D Printing Will Disrupt Manufacturing.

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About Stefan Guertzgen

Dr. Stefan Guertzgen is the Global Director of Industry Solution Marketing for Chemicals at SAP. He is responsible for driving Industry Thought Leadership, Positioning & Messaging and strategic Portfolio Decisions for Chemicals.