The use of fiber-reinforced polymer composite materials was invented to aid in weight reduction. The goal was to create lighter pieces that were as strong as their metal counterparts. Composites are becoming an alternative to metal for the manufacture of components such as aircraft parts where weight reduction must be done without compromising the integrity of the part.
Composite part manufacturing involves building the parts in layers, which is the essence of the additive manufacturing (AM) process. Progress towards the use of composites has been accelerated by 3D printing. Recently AM has provided a process for making parts from composites.
Additive manufacturing of composites is approaching an inflection point, according to IDTechEX research. There are a growing number of printer manufacturers, there are new market launches, more funding, notable partnerships, and most importantly, a wide range of success stories.
In its report “3D Printing Composites 2021-2031: Technology and Market Analysis”, IDTechEx predicts that the AM composites market will reach $ 2 billion by 2031. While that doesn’t sound like a huge number, it does represent a significant growth compared to the current market. Cut. Growth is more than nine times turnover in 2021.
The report highlights three key developments in the market that forecast future growth:
- Technology has matured. This industry has benefited from the development of 3D printing polymers and metals, but there are special considerations from printhead to software that have had to develop further to fully utilize the anisotropic properties of fibers.
- The applications have matured. It takes time for end users to find the value-added applications and prove the technology. This has now happened for many industries with benefits ranging from weight reduction to reduced inventory costs or downtime with replacement tools, jigs or fixtures.
- The supply chain has matured. This is often a challenge for a young industry, but the market has seen key partnerships from material manufacturers to distributors that have helped eliminate this pain point.
Composites going slowly into production
Until now, a large part of the production of AM composite parts has consisted of creating tools for manufacturing and prototypes. “AM composites are currently primarily intended for tools, jigs and fixtures. Rather, they are one-time or very low-volume spares, which can reduce downtime, reduce inventory costs and allow greater design freedom, ”said Richard Collins, senior technology analyst at IDTechEx. Design News. “Prototyping is, of course, another key area. The production parts are further away, most technologies are not suitable for high throughput.
Despite this, several industries are studying the idea of producing composite parts on a large scale. “The use of composites production is under investigation,” Collins said. “For parts intended for end users, there is interest in aerospace and defense, space, energy, marine and consumer goods. “
Composites can be more difficult than polymers and metal
Polymers are well established in AM. Metals entering established processes. Composites, however, are relatively new to AM. “In 3D printing. composites are a more immature technology than polymers or metals, ”Collins. There is still a lot of understanding and development needed. There’s no reason it should be harder to work with, but the printer, software, and materials are always advancing. However, the software to fully utilize the anisotropic properties of continuous fiber in a 3D printing process has advanced considerably.
As for the cost of AM composites, it depends. “The cost differences with composites can be measured on a case-by-case basis,” Collins said. “For most applications, what will be economically beneficial will depend on the number of parts per year. “
AM composites continue to evolve
Since composites are new to AM, the structure to support the process is still under development. “As with printer hardware and software, material development and the supply chain are always evolving. It’s interesting to see the number of strategic partnerships and investments from large materials companies in this area, ”Collins said. “Many have identified this as a good area for growth and IDTechEx considers ongoing materials sales to be an important part of this industry in the medium to long term. “
So far, the durability of AM composites has not been addressed. “It’s not a major goal. Composites can be considered durable as they replace light metal, and localized manufacturing reduces transportation. But it’s not primarily green materials, ”Collins said. “One of the few exceptions to this rule is the interesting use of recycled carbon fiber as a reinforcing material. “
Collins noted three results from the study that he found surprising. “First, this technology is maturing and the industry has grown in recent years. There is considerable funding, market entrants and product launches, ”Collins said. “You can buy a bike that uses this technology from Arevo and your Frito-Lay product may have benefited from a Markforged printer to support the Frito-Lay assembly line. “
Another surprising area of development is that of possible applications. “The diversity of sectors is important. The obvious added value depends on the correct application, ”Collins said. “There are many exciting demonstrations and potential applications. “
Collins also noted that competition in the market is increasing. “There are a lot of technologies out there, each with their strengths and weaknesses, but most of them are centralized around a thermoplastic extrusion or placement process,” Collins said. “There are intellectual property battles, a growing number of players, competing business models and key supply chain partnerships. The number of printer manufacturers continues to grow. We expect market consolidation in the medium to long term.