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The Best Production Method for Composite Parts? Could Be Additive Manufacturing

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Composites are finding their way into production. In many cases, it’s through additive manufacturing.

The use of fiber-reinforced polymer composite materials was invented to help with lightweighting. The goal was to create lighter parts the were as strong as their metal counterparts. Composites are becoming an alternative to metal for manufacturing components such as aircraft parts where lightweighting must be done without compromising the part’s integrity.

Composite parts manufacturing involves building the parts in layers, which is the essence of the additive manufacturing (AM) process. Progress toward the use of composites has been accelerated by 3D printing. Recently, AM has been providing a process for making parts out of composites.

According to IDTechEX research, additive manufacturing of composites is approaching an inflection point. There is an increasing number of printer manufacturers, there are new market launches, more funding, notable partnerships, and importantly, a wide range of success stories.

In its report "3D Printing Composites 2021-2031: Technology and Market Analysis", IDTechEx forecasts the market for composites in AM will reach $2 billion by 2031. Though this may not seem like a huge number, it represents significant growth from the current market size. The growth is greater than nine times the revenue in 2021 revenue.

The report points to three key developments in the market that provide for future growth:

  • The technology has matured. This industry has benefitted from the development of 3D printing polymers and metals, but there are special considerations from the print head through to the software that had to further develop to fully utilize the anisotropic properties from the fibers.
  • The applications have matured. It takes time for end-users to find the value-add applications and prove out the technology. This has now happened for numerous sectors with benefits ranging from lightweighting through to reducing 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 remove this pain point.

Composites Moving Slowly into Production

So far, much of the production in AM composite parts has been to create tools for manufacturing and prototypes. “Composites AM is predominantly for tools, jigs, and fixtures at present. These are more one-off or very low volume replacement parts, which can reduce downtime, inventory costs, and allow for more design freedom,” Richard Collins, principal technology analyst at IDTechEx, told Design News. “Prototyping is, of course, another key area. Production parts are further afield, most technology is not suitable for high throughput.”

Even so, several industries are studying the idea of producing composite parts at scale. “The use of composites production is being explored,” said Collins. “For end-user parts, 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 moving into established processes. Composites, however, are relatively new in 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 is no reason for it to be more difficult to work with, but the printer, software, and materials are still progressing. Yet the software to fully utilize the anisotropic properties with continuous fiber in a 3D printing process has progressed significantly.”

As for the expense of AM composites, it depends. “The cost differences with composites can be measured on a case-by-case basis,” said Collins. “For most applications, where it will be economically advantageous will depend on the number of parts per year.”

AM Composites Still Evolving

Since composites are new to AM, the structure to support the process is still developing. “As with the printer hardware and software, the materials development and supply chain are still evolving. It is interesting to see the number of strategic partnerships and investments from major materials companies in this field,” said Collins. “Many have identified this as a good growth area and IDTechEx views ongoing material sales to be a significant part of this industry in the mid to long term.”

So far, the sustainability of the AM composites has not been addressed. “This is not a major focus. Composites can be considered sustainable by being a lightweight metal replacement, and localized manufacturing reduces transportation. But these are not predominantly green materials,” said Collins. “One of only a few exceptions to this is the interesting use of recycled carbon fiber as their reinforcement material.”

Surprises from the Research

Collins noted that are three results from the study that he found surprising. “First, this technology is maturing and the industry has expanded in recent years. There is considerable funding, market entrants, and product launches,” said Collins. “You can buy a bike that uses this technology from Arevo and your Frito-Lay product may have benefited from having a Markforged printer to support Frito-Lay’s assembly line.”

Another area of surprise development is in possible applications.“The diversity of the sectors is important. The obvious value-add depends on the correct application,” said Collins. “There are numerous exciting demonstrations and potential applications.”

Collins also noted that the market competition is heating up. “There are a diverse number of technologies, each with its strength and weaknesses, but most are centralized around a thermoplastic extrusion or placement process,” said Collins. “There are IP battles, an increasing number of players, competing business models, and key supply chain partnerships. The number of printer manufacturers keeps expanding. We expect a consolidation of the market in the mid to long term.”

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