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3D Printing: A Material Challenge

Posted By Jeff Moad, February 27, 2014 at 12:29 PM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

As manufacturers begin to consider expanding their use of 3D printing beyond prototyping into production, many are being stopped in their tracks by this question: How can we be sure about the quality and performance properties of the materials we are being sold to use in our 3D printers?

The answer appears to be that, short of directly testing all of the materials they are using in 3D printers, manufacturers today have no way to guarantee that the materials used to create production products or parts will perform to their expectations or to those of their customers. That’s because, so far, the 3D printing industry has come up with no performance standards for materials used in 3D printers.

According to Diego Tamburini, an industrial strategist at Autodesk who recently addressed a meeting of the Manufacturing Leadership Council on 3D printing, the selection and quality of materials used in 3D printers today is up to each vendor. There are no U.S. or internationally-recognized standards.

And the 3D printer vendors themselves don’t seem all that reassuring when it comes to the quality or performance properties of the materials that the industry is making available. “Claims about…available materials should be viewed with caution as that does not guarantee the available materials will provide the real functional performance needed,” warns a 3D printer buyers guide posted by printer vendor 3D Systems. “It is vital that parts from 3D printers being evaluated be tested in the intended application prior to making a purchase decision. Stability of parts over time and across various use environments are not discernible from standard published specifications and may lead to limitations in actual usefulness if not fully considered and tested,” the guide adds.

The apparent variability in the quality and performance of materials may be OK for consumers fabricating Star Wars bracelets on 3D printers in the spare bedroom. It may not work so well, however, for manufacturers whose customers pay for and expect tight tolerances and specific performance criteria.

The 3D printing industry seems to have recognized the need for material standards and has formed groups to address the challenge. The European Union has formed the Support Action for Standardisation in Additive Manufacturing (SASAM) which recently published a roadmap for creating standards for materials used in 3D printers.

America Makes, also known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, is also helping to coordinate 3D printing materials standard for the U.S. (We should hear more about this at the Manufacturing Leadership Summit in June where America Makes Founding Director Ralph Resnick will speak.)

But it could be a while before standards are in place and commercial 3D printing materials can be certified. The SASAM roadmap, for example, indicates it will take until the end of 2022 to develop and test standards for a wide range of 3D printing materials, including titanium,gold, bronze, and ceramics.

Is your company considering 3D printing for production applications? Is the quality and performance of materials a concern?

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit


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This situation should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the introduction of new materials/processes. The powder metallurgy industry has taken decades to establish standards for PM powders and performance characterization. The thermal spray industry is another one where process and material characterization is an ongoing effort. This is where the sci-fi hype about additive manufacturing hits the engineering reality of material performance characterization. There will be a lot of laboratory grunt work involved to get this work done. The suggestion of 2022 to just to get the standards in place does not seem far fetched.

A likely path of commercialization will be to develop performance standards on machine vendor powders in their machines using specified operating parameters (this performance at this build rate, that performance at that build rate, etc.). The work could be done by the vendors or through outside labs such as universities. This will take a lot of time and money. This information will be used to compare additively produced parts to parts made with conventional materials and methods. Non machine powder producers will also develop parameters for their powders in a variety of machines. Eventually, there will be standardized powder classifications specific to additive manufacturing. Unfortunately, with each generation of equipment, there may be new materials and re-characterization of old materials in new equipment.This will slow the acceptance of additive manufacturing until the industry establishes confidence in the process and the materials. The market drivers of quick turnaround and the ability to manufacture parts that cannot be produced by any other process will provide the impetus to support the development needed to commercialize additive manufacturing. The question is, at what rate?
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