Those who visited this year’s Milan Design Week and ventured behind the Duomo were greeted by a 100-square-meter house designed by architect Massimiliano Locatelli and 3D printed on-site in under a week. The point of the structure was to show how the advantages of 3D printing – among them affordability, speed, and flexibility – could provide needed solutions to important issues, in this case, meeting the challenge of sustainable housing.
3D printing (also called additive manufacturing because it works through addition of material) refers to the creation of physical objects from digital blueprints.
In the most common form of 3D printing, called fused filament fabrication, a plastic wire, or filament, of polymer material is used as “ink” by the 3D printer to build up the desired product layer by layer.
"This process enables the creation of complex shapes that would be difficult or impossible to make any other way."
This process enables the creation of complex shapes that would be difficult or impossible to make any other way. Moreover, unlike traditional manufacturing, modifying a design is as simple as switching out the blueprint instead of having to change an entire production line. And because 3D printing doesn’t require costly molds or tooling, it saves costs and generates less scrap – which could lead to more sustainable manufacturing.
Improved printers and advances in materials technology have made 3D printing a growth industry. According to IDC, a market intelligence firm, global spending on 3D printing technologies is estimated to reach $12 billion in 2018, an increase of nearly 20% over 2017. It has also been proven to help reduce material waste compared to more conventional forms of production. The main uses of 3D printing include production of aerospace parts (e.g., fuel nozzles), custom lighting made with polycarbonate filaments, prosthetic limbs and orthopedic implants, and parts for automobiles. But potential applications of the technology are endless, ranging from fashion to healthcare to architecture.
3D printing has an easy ring to it, but the demands on the materials used are no less strict than on conventional materials. That’s where Clariant’s dedicated 3D printing business comes in. The company’s decades of expertise in tailoring polymers for a broad range of end-market applications with additives, masterbatches, and pigments are ideally suited to providing high-quality 3D printer materials.
For example, flame retardancy is a critical property for electrical housings in electronics and in auto parts. After repeated requests for Clariant’s non-halogenated flame retardant Exolit® in 3D printing applications, Clariant’s 3D printing team worked together with Clariant’s Additives unit to design flame retardant Polyamide 6, a 3D printer filament using Exolit. This range of Clariant flame retardants can help slow down or prevent the spread of a fire and feature an excellent environmental and health profile.
Clariant also tailors polymer filament materials to meet customer demand for properties such as toughness and durability, high impact strength, transparency, wear resistance, and machinability. A key issue with 3D printing is printability – in other words, how well the printing process actually works. Given the variety of filaments and printer types, improperly sized filaments, poor quality filaments, and degradation due to moisture are just some of the factors that can result in failed prints. Clariant has partnered with Ultimaker – the global leader in desktop 3D printing – to enable high-level engineering plastics and composites on Ultimaker machines. The plan is to generate material profiles that will allow Ultimaker’s customers to reliably use the materials on Ultimaker 3D printers. Here, Clariant’s 3D printing team will not only produce high-grade printer filaments packaged with Clariant desiccants to guard against moisture, but will then ensure that all of the filaments print effectively before shipping them.
Through its combination of flexible, sophisticated design and lean production, 3D printing represents a whole new approach to matching supply and demand in today’s fast-moving, specialized markets. Machines capable of printing metals (e.g., metal parts) and biomaterials (e.g., tissue engineering), or concrete, such as the Massimiliano Locatelli object showcased at the Milan Design Week, are already starting to appear or are being developed. These technologies, if successful, would significantly expand the scope of creativity for the 3D printing industry, and open up new fields of endeavor.