For years, three-dimensional printing companies perked along on their own, too small to attract much attention from the big chemical makers whose polymers run through their machines. But that is changing as two large firms—BASF and DSM—unveil initiatives to make new and better materials for the nascent field.
The announcements were made at FormNext, a trade show held last week in Frankfurt. The exhibition featured 233 exhibitors spanning 14,000 m2 of exhibition space.
Terry Wohlers, president of the consulting firm Wohlers Associates, says 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has been skyrocketing. After averaging 34% annual growth over three years, the market for 3-D printing materials and equipment hit $4.1 billion in 2014, he says.
To capitalize on this growth, BASF is working with printer maker Farsoon Hi-tech and 3-D printing service provider Laser-Sinter-Service. The companies are focusing on laser sintering, a method of printing in which a laser traces out a 3-D object by melting resin powder a layer at a time.
Over conventional molding, 3-D printing offers advantages such as lower costs for making small batches of parts. However, between the layering process and dependence on a limited number of plastics, finished parts can be mechanically inferior to molded articles.
BASF says it has developed a nylon 6 powder that offers higher strength and heat stability than nylon 12, a resin supplied by Evonik Industries, which has a strong presence in laser sintering.
DSM, meanwhile, revealed a capacity expansion for its Somos brand additive manufacturing materials at its plant in Hoek van Holland, the Netherlands. The photopolymers are used in stereolithography, a type of 3-D printing that uses lasers to set photosensitive liquid thermoset resins into shapes.
At the show, DSM also introduced a new product, Somos Element, intended for use in a metal fabrication technique called investment casting. DSM says the 3-D version of investment casting eliminates the wax molds that are traditionally used to make precision metal parts.