The best days for polymer 3D printing are still ahead

SmarTechMetal 3D printing may be grabbing the limelight right now, but that doesn’t mean you should put plastics in the corner. “Polymers are falling behind metals in terms of transitioning to a major serial production technology for finished parts,” acknowledged Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Markets Publishing (Crozet, VA), a consultancy and publisher of 3D-printing related business reports. “But interest in using polymer 3D printing technology to compete with or complement injection molding is at an all-time high,” said Dunham.

Dunham, who authored “Opportunities in Polymer and Plastic 3D Printing - 2017: An Opportunity Analysis and Ten-year Forecast for SmarTech,” addressed topics related to 3D printing technology trends and associated markets during a recent webcast. Here are some of his key observations.

Anyone doubting the relevance of polymer-based 3D printing need look no further than medical and dental applications. “In the next 18 months, about $560 million will be spent on 3D printers for medical and dental applications. That will grow to $2.5 to 3 billion by 2026,” said Dunham. The new Fuse 1 printer from Formlabs is illustrative of the advances that continue to be made.

The relatively inexpensive Fuse 1 printer—it starts at just under $10,000—uses selective laser sintering (SLS) to produce parts, a technology that is typically found on industrial machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company has been especially successful in dentistry, where it has slashed costs and lead times for mouth guards and other dental products.

The other big opportunity for plastic 3D-printed parts is in automotive. “Printed parts are showing up in luxury automobiles now, and that will trickle down. Printing spare parts on demand also has tremendous potential,” said Dunham.

Speed versus precision

“Extrusion-based printers are, by far, the most common worldwide in both the above and below $5,000 segments, but when you’re looking at higher end production-grade equipment, photopolymerization and powder-bed fusion will become the biggest opportunities for revenue in hardware," said Dunham.

When there is a need for speed, photopolymerization is the best positioned technology in the long term to compete with injection molding, according to Dunham. Carbon and 3D Systems are ones to watch in this space, he adds. EnvisionTEC also has taken the technology to great heights, but the company is "a bit shy," said Dunham. “EnvisionTEC is one of the world leaders in classic photopolymerization systems, and has strong ties to markets such as dentistry and jewelry.” The emphasis in these markets is on precision in very small parts, where speed is a secondary consideration. “Thus, EnvisionTEC isn’t as gung-ho about the high-speed approach as some others mentioned above, who are basing their entire business models on this concept."

As for HP's Multi Jet Fusion technology, which PlasticsToday has reported on, it is “a derivative of the powder-bed fusion process and will no doubt play a huge role in the growth of polymer 3D printing,” said Dunham. The process is completely different from Carbon's, noted Dunham, but “there is potential for them to compete against one another for certain applications in the future. Both claim to be aiming to compete with injection molding in certain instances, though the reality is that they still will produce very different parts.”

A real game changer in the plastics 3D printing space, however, is low-cost selective laser sintering, said Dunham. “It will be massive, but we need to see more materials innovations. It’s one of the best processes but also one of the hardest for qualifying materials. I’m excited about R&D on ABS for sintering . . . and PE, PP, PBT. When we get to that point, it will become very interesting.”

In the end, there is not one 3D printing process that fits all applications, stressed Dunham. “When approaching this technology, it’s best to segment the market by process and available materials,” said Dunham.

In doing this due diligence, “Opportunities in Polymer and Plastic 3D Printing - 2017: An Opportunity Analysis and Ten-year Forecast for SmarTech” can be a helpful tool. The report, authored by Dunham, is the third generation of the “world’s most comprehensive analysis of polymer 3D printing technology,” according to SmarTech Markets Publishing. For more information, go to the company’s website.

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