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3D Printing Materials: 2018 Quick Guide

Discover what are the most common types of 3D printing materials being used in industrial environments for the production of custom parts and understand what manufacturers can benefit from each of them.

Introduction to 3D printing Materials

For years, the production of quick prototypes was the main application of 3D printing technologies in industrial facilities. The technology was still on its early stage, and lacked the variety of 3D printing materials available nowadays. In fact, it relied almost entirely on plastic materials. Thus, 3D printing prototypes using plastic to visualize and test designs was the most obvious application for the technology. However, advancements on the quality and sophistication of 3D printing materials, and the diversification in the range of materials available have expanded the capabilities of 3D printing

This ongoing development of new 3D printing materials is largely contributing for the consolidation of the technology as a powerful manufacturing technique with several use cases across industries. In combination with improvements on the mechanics of 3D printers, it is increasing the quality of printed parts and positively impacting the costs of industrial production.

Plastics

Plastic was the type of 3D printing material used to fabricate the first 3D models when early additive manufacturing machines were invented in the beginning of the 1980s. Despite this ground-breaking achievement, the technology of 3D printing still had a long way to go. Thus, the perfecting and further development of the technology heavily relied on plastic materials for the decades to come.

Nowadays there are several technologies that can 3D print plastic using different processes. The most common process is the extrusion of thermoplastic material, also known as Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). FDM is also the most adopted 3D printing method.

It is no surprise that until today it remains the most widely used material type for 3D printing custom parts. After all, extensive research was and is conducted to develop new plastic materials with different characteristics for a variety of 3D printing processes. But also, it is readily available, cheaper and found everywhere on our daily life.

The biggest application of plastic 3D printing materials is still prototyping. Nonetheless, it is also used for industrial tooling, design testing, marketing models among others.

Metals

The first techniques to 3D print metal objects using additive manufacturing technology were developed during 1980s. Despite that, metal 3D printing only started becoming more popular in the recent years. The process of the earliest technologies for metal 3D printing used to be tedious. Not only that but it was also not appropriate for high-production needs with tight tolerances. These technologies used to lack a component that would cool down the heated metal. As a result, the printed parts required a high level of post-production processing.

Although, traditional manufacturing techniques for fabricating metal parts can be a costly and wasteful process. Every metal part is produced with surplus material. This led manufacturers to turn their attention into the development of 3D printing alternatives to produce metal objects. Inevitably metal 3D printing became the hot topic in the industry, with large investments being made for researching and launching new products. The increase in popularity of metal 3D printing materials can also be attributed to the distinctive blend of practical and aesthetic characteristics offered by each material, which also suit a wide range of products.

According to 3DP.com, the evolution of the technology has been extremely significant. For instance, we are now able to mass manufacture 3D printed metal parts. But most importantly, the quality sometimes is just as good, or even higher, as those produced using traditional manufacturing techniques.

How can manufacturers benefit from metal 3D printing?

The aviation industry is a good example to highlight how manufacturers are benefiting from metal 3D printing. To begin with, Additive Manufacturing technologies require less energy to manufacture finished metal parts for aircrafts. It also allows aircraft makers to decrease waste to a minimum as opposed to traditional manufacturing – where 90% of the material may end up being discarded as waste. In addition, the technology can produce much lighter finished metal parts. The weight reduction can be as high as 60% of that of its counterpart. As a result, the industry is able to save billions of euros per year by using additive manufacturing techniques.

Ceramics

While plastics and metals have an established position of materials suitable for industrial 3D printing, technical ceramics – also known as high-performance ceramics – have recently started to gain popularity. As opposed to decorative ceramics, the material usually does not contain clay and has been optimized for technical applications. As a result, it is becoming widely adopted for end-use and biocompatible products across the aerospace, automotive and medical industries.

In fact, the special properties of technical ceramics allow this 3D printing material to replace metal in some applications where heat resistance as well as dimensional and mechanical stability is required. For instance, it is a suitable option for components that must endure high levels of stress such as machines nozzles and cutting tools.

That is only possible due to the recent advancements in AM technologies. These advancements have enabled the production of ceramic parts in complex, highly precise and detailed geometric forms. All of that while maintaining its fantastic mechanical and thermal properties. The fabrication of parts using ceramic 3D printing materials can be done through different techniques. Some 3D printers form a model by paste extrusion and other printer deposit different binding factors on ceramic powder.

The particular thing to note with ceramic materials used for 3D printing is that during post-processing they undergo the same secondary operations as the objects manufactured in the traditional way. That is due to the fact that the part is still fragile after being printed. The printed part will acquire its strength and hardness when fired in a special oven. This technique known as sintering applies heat or pressure to the particles of the primary material to fuse it together into a solid mass.

How can manufacturers benefit from 3D printed ceramics?

Producing ceramics with 3D printing brings the advantage of being able to design products and parts which are challenging, or impossible, to obtain with traditional methods due to the complexity of details. In addition, the material also allows for full customization – especially in the bio medical industry – and zero-to-low waste.

With 3D printing, ceramic parts of different colors can be obtained. Coatings improving its appearance, smoothness and shininess of the surface are also applicable, depending on intended usage.

At the same time, there are techniques enabling to produce ceramics that can be fired in a kiln and glazed, which allows to control the physical properties of a material to the same extent as conventional techniques do. As a result, when used in the correct way, technical ceramics can reduce overall maintenance costs and bring significant improvements to product performance as well as increase product lifespan and efficiency.

Composites

Composites are the result of merging two or more materials with different properties with the goal of creating one that is stronger. Rather than blending the materials to the point where individual traits are lost, composites combine each material’s most sought characteristics. For that reason, the creation of composite 3D printing materials is usually done by taking into account a specific purpose. It can be increase in strength, efficiency or higher durability.

Overall, the main purpose of composite materials is to improve the end result of a product or part that would otherwise not be possible by using one material on its own. In the end, the integration of each material’s physical or chemical properties improves the functionality or outcome of a 3D printed custom part.

The creation of composite materials happens by reinforcing a matrix (i.e.: metal) with an engineered fiber material (i.e.: glass). Both elements complement each other: the fibers are protected from external damage while providing strength to the matrix. The matrix transfers the load between fibers, which in turn helps the matrix to withstand cracks and fractures. A curious fact is that in 3D printing applications, the fiber material is usually not printable on its own.

How can manufacturers benefit from 3D printed composites?

The automotive and aerospace industries are good examples of industries that can benefit from using composite materials. For instance, let’s take the combination of thermoplastics reinforced by carbon fiber as an example. Parts printed with this composite are lighter and with higher durability than iron or steel parts manufactured through traditional techniques. This combination eliminates the concern regarding the heat and wear resistance of plastic materials.

Composites 3D printing materials may also be a solution for manufacturers of optical or electronic elements. Often, these elements require the combination of specific material properties with small dimensions and diligence of details.

When it comes to metal composites, the combination of materials such as titanium or aluminum with silicon carbide fibers matrix enables the production of parts that have higher strength-to-density ratios, better fatigue resistance, better elevated temperature properties and lower coefficient of thermal expansion, just to cite a few.

Rubbers and Silicone

Some of the the most recent developments that brought excitement to the 3D printing community, especially those involved in the production of industrial components, was the launch of rubber-like and silicone materials.   

The possibility of printing objects with these materials is a game-changer at a multi-industry level since it allows for manufacturers to tap into a whole new approach to produce parts that were until recently not possible with additive manufacturing. 

We have prepared two different articles for those who are interested to learn more about 3D printing with silicone or with rubber.

Materials on Beamler’s Database

When we started building Beamler’s platform we knew how important it was to provide a wide variety of 3D printing materials. After all, manufacturers and engineers need to have access to a broad spectrum of materials to produce their custom parts. Having that in mind, we focused in building a database of 3D printing materials that meets to all your needs. Whether your custom parts needs to be heat resistant or biocompatible, we are confident you will find the right material.

Click here to access more information regarding the materials on our platform.