It seems apt that I am writing this gearing up to my third TCT Show + Personalize. During my first TCT Show I was privy to a lengthy conversation between a 3D printer manufacturer and a huge plastics processing company, in which the co-creator of the Threedy printer was bemoaning the lack of quality control and variety in desktop 3D printing filaments to a director at Clariant International Ltd.
During that back-and-forth it was clear that in order for the burgeoning desktop 3D printing market to appeal to the masses, huge multinationals needed to offer, at least, their expertise in the R&D of plastics suitable for extrusion or even curing. The filament market then was one in its infancy with many people focussing on bringing the cost down as opposed the quality up.
Fast-forward almost two years to the day and an interview with filament manufacturer, Polymaker, reveals just that: a billion-dollar corporation joining forces with a 3D printing consumables supplier in order to perfect a 3D printing filament. The material is a polycarbonate designed with Covestro formerly Bayer MaterialScience – employer of 14,000 in over 30 production facilities dotted across the globe.
“3D printing is a very attractive market, we foresee huge growth in this industry,” Yvonne Wang, Marketing Manager – New Segments APAC, Covestro, tells TCT. “We see Polymaker as an innovative materials supplier that have truly raised the quality standards within the 3D printing industry. With our expertise in materials and Polymaker's extensive knowledge in the development of materials for the 3D printing market, together we have, and will continue to, develop innovative, groundbreaking materials for the 3D Printing community.”
For Polymaker the partnership goes beyond that of leveraging the R&D of a leading material science company in order to create the best possible material, this is a slice of history for the Chinese headquartered company.
“Polycarbonate is a material with a long history, over 60 years in fact, most people involved in the 3D printing industry have grown up around the material.” Explains Aaron Jennings, Design and Communications Manager at Polymaker. “It was invented in 1953 by Bayer MaterialScience so partnering with them and their years of experience in this material brings a lot to the table for Polymaker.”
The big deal
The two main reasons 3D printing with polycarbonate is something of a holy grail for desktop users are its toughness – it has one of the highest strength to weight ratios of any polymer – and its resistance to heat. Whereas a PLA mobile phone holder for your Californian road trip may seem a good idea, the material will simply not last the cause and will end up as a pool of molten plastic in your foot well, an ABS printed coffee mug will perhaps last one or two drinks, either of these items printed in polycarbonate will withstand heat of up and above 110 degrees.
“Another benefit is that polycarbonate is also optically clear,” adds Jennings. “Our filament it is crystal clear but when 3D printed the layer resolutions distorts the transparency slightly. If you sand the material and get it down to a fine surface then you can spray the surface with a clear lacquer, like the automotive industry does with damaged headlights, this can give your print a beautiful transparent aesthetic “.
Though there are already polycarbonate materials on the market, many users have found them a frustrating set of materials; a common problem is a lack of adhesion to print beds causing warping. To ensure minimal warp and a good adhesion to the print bed, Polymaker bundles both their products PC-Plus and PC-Max with a sheet of BuildTak. For those who already have BuildTak, both products will also be available as a stand-alone product.
“We’ve listed around eight to ten polycarbonate filaments already on the market but most of them are blends,” explains Jennings. “They’re not truly polycarbonate. You lose the real benefits of the material when it is blended with PLA or ABS, they’re blended in order to make them printable at the temperatures most desktop machines can reach, this is the quick and easy way.”
He continues: “What we have done, with the help of Covestro, is engineered our polycarbonate so that it can print at moderate temperatures between 250 -270 degrees. This makes it much more adaptable and much more consumer friendly when you consider what printers are dominating the market.”
As MakerBot has discovered over the past couple of years the home 3D printing market is not yet mature enough for a company to operate at a sufficient profit. The Brooklyn manufacturer has started to focus on designers and engineers. Polymaker and Covestro think they’ve spotted a gap in that market.
"Polycarbonate is an engineering plastic as opposed to being a commodity like the other materials currently available,” details Covestro’s Wang. “There are a lot of engineers and designers who already use polycarbonate and for them 3D printing with PC Plus or PC Max will be a quick win because they already know the mechanical performance of the material."
Although Polymaker do offer a selection of very well refined filaments aimed at the consumer with their bright colours and jam free technology they’re also beginning to see a shift in focus for the desktop 3D printing industry with a growing number of applications coming from prosumers. PC Plus and PC Max are materials developed for them.
“Orthopaedists and prosthetists, who are designing devices to be 3D printed, have been limited with the previous materials choices,” says Jennings. “Limited because they need so many different tensile strengths for varying forces. With ABS and PLA they're having to over engineer these products so that the wall thickness is 10-12mm, which makes the part too heavy to be comfortable. With our polycarbonate materials and their high strength to weight properties, designers will have the freedom to design and print intricate and delicate designs.”
Opening a closed loop
Because the 3D printing industry is so often compared to that of its two dimensional namesake some 3D printer manufacturers went with the business model of selling cheaper hardware that ties the consumer into purchasing proprietary consumables. This business model, according to Polymaker, is detrimental to mass adoption of the 3D printing industry.
"If you want to close source that is limiting the innovation,” exclaims a passionate Hang Qu, co-founder of Polymaker. “3D printing gives people the freedom to design, create and innovate, what the close-sourced approach does is limits that freedom. The more freedom of choice of materials the more innovation you will see, we, at Polymaker, want to simplify the innovation."
Though one would expect this opinion from a third party filament supplier it was echoed in CEL Robox’s Kickstarter campaign. After initially suggesting their printer would only print with the proprietary SmartReels CEL listened to their customers and allowed users to print with third party materials and now even allows users to write material profiles directly onto the SmartReel’s chip.
"Customers want a choice, they want a selection, they do not want to be limited, says Aaron Jennings. “Innovation comes from the end-users; they're the ones unlocking new applications. Engineers and industrial designers, who were previously hesitant to adopt the technology due to the limitations of the final print’s material properties, will benefit from a wider range of material choices.”
Polymaker won’t stop at the polycarbonate materials (PC Plus and PC Max will be released in the coming months) they have ambitious plans to increase 3D printing’s adoption through material science and with the help of Covestro they may just be on to a winner.
Visit Polymaker on stand A14 at TCT Show + Personalize 2015 (30th September - 1st October, NEC Birmingham). REGISTER FOR FREE.