IDTechEx have been wondering how long it will take for more plastics to become available for 3D printing. The range is currently very limited, but new materials are becoming available all the time. Wacker, with their ACEO brand, recently launched a machine to 3D print silicone, which they will be demonstrating at IDTechEx Show! 3M are looking to offer print-on-demand solutions for spare and custom parts. In particular, this fluoropolymer 3D printing service would be used for parts with particularly complex geometries. This "service bureau" business model is becoming increasingly common as the technologies to print the materials become more complicated and the materials become more difficult to handle. Anyone can extrude PLA at home, so companies can sell thermoplastic extruders. Companies like Organovo offering 3D cell printing or Impossible Objects offering carbon fibre reinforced plastic 3D printing, have complicated equipment, which they keep in house, and sell parts they produce.
The range of available materials is one of the key hurdles to adoption for industrial 3D printing. 3D printing is being rapidly adopted by product manufacturers all around the world, but it still can't compete with many other manufacturing techniques with respect to material diversity. A large number of the most commonly used industrial plastics still aren't widely available for 3D printers, making 3D printing unsuitable for many applications.
A full discussion of materials available for 3D printing and the remaining white spaces can be found in the IDTechEx research report 3D Printing Materials 2016-2026 Industrial polymer giants, 3M, have just widened the range. Through a new patent-pending technology they have successfully 3D printed fully-fluorinated PTFE polymers. Polymer specialist 3M, including its subsidiaries Dyneon GmbH and Dyneon B.V., is one of the world's leading manufacturers of PTFE and similar materials such as fluoroelastomers and fluorothermoplastics. It makes sense for them to be looking to expand into the 3D printed space.
PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) is an extremely useful material, used in many everyday products. It is very hydrophobic, meaning that neither water nor water-containing substances make it wet, so it is used in outdoor clothing. It also has one of the lowest friction coefficients of any solid. It is the only surface a gecko cannot stick to. This property makes it perfect for non-stick coatings for bakeware. Bacteria and other microbes also have a very hard time adhering to the material, making it a very good option for various hospital applications, such as catheters.
Other fluoropolymers are also heavily used in the oil and gas, chemical, automotive and aerospace industries, and it is possible that the same 3D printing technology could be applied to them. This breakthrough makes it possible to 3D print a whole new class of materials, which will influence many industries.
Normally, parts made from PTFE and other fluoropolymers are manufactured using expensive traditional processing techniques, which typically create a lot of waste. It is also difficult to create very complex structures. 3D printing has the potential to offer more sustainable manufacturing and a wider variety of designs. The breakthrough is already paving the way for previously impossible applications.