Additive manufacturing is known to have key advantages but is traditionally held back in factors such as production rate, available materials portfolio, training & know-how requirements, scale, and more
3D printing of fiber-reinforced polymers is rapidly approaching a commercial tipping point. This is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and impactful areas of 3D printing; over the next decade the market will grow to $2 billion, the installed base and applications will expand, and technology will continue to mature.
This growth, as per IDTechEx, will not be without challenges; there are barriers to adoption to be overcome in multiple sectors, supply chains & digital infrastructures to be established, and an inevitable consolidation in the number of manufacturers.
“The reason for the interest in this sector is easily apparent. 3D printing of polymer materials can have mechanical limitations that benefit from fiber reinforcement (or other functionalities), and composite manufacturing is known to be costly, and challenging this can benefit from the moldless, rapid prototyping, and automated approach that additive manufacturing enables,” read the report.
It continued, “From AFP & ATL processes through to pick-and-place robots for organosheets, there is much to be aware of to understand the role that 3D printing can play within this industry.”
Smaller values in 2021
IDTechEx forecast the total revenue for 3D printing composites to reach $2bn by 2031 from much smaller values in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the industry which has been a minor setback, but printer usage recovered fairly quickly, and it has certainly accelerated the discussion around a robust distributed supply chain which benefits 3D printing.
There is already a reasonable installed base in composite 3D printers, but obviously much smaller than their polymer counterparts and set to grow significantly. Existing polymer printers can often accommodate certain composite material, but typically at very low loading percentages and with several limitations.
Additive manufacturing is known to have key advantages but is traditionally held back in factors such as production rate, available materials portfolio, training & know-how requirements, scale, and more. In many cases, this has capped the applications to the likes of prototypes and tooling.
The story for composite printers is not overly different. There are increasing examples of end-use parts, which will only continue to increase, but the main area is on the manufacturing floor with jigs, fixtures, tools, and other equipment. This will progress into low to medium part runs, particularly with new solutions emerging and significant interest from high-value sectors such as aerospace and medical, but the manufacturing floor is still a potentially very lucrative area and where there is a clear value-add.
Composite printers can not only allow metal parts to be replaced and facilitate design improvements but give the company the capability to bring this technology in-house, reducing both supplier costs and inventory challenges driven by long lead-times for replacement parts.