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3-D printing seeks commercial markets

Firms add speed, scale, and materials to lure manufacturing customers

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 22, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 13

Credit: HP
HP tests polymer powders for use in its Jet Fusion 3-D printer.
This image shows a layer of white polymer powder on a test bed for HP’s 3-D printer.
Credit: HP
HP tests polymer powders for use in its Jet Fusion 3-D printer.

Companies that make three-dimensional printers are coming out with new products that they hope will jumpstart demand from the manufacturing market. Although sales of consumer and desktop versions grew briskly last year, the same was not true for pricier machines geared to industry.

At this week’s Additive Manufacturing Users Group conference, held in Chicago, start-up Carbon introduced the M2, which the firm says is a robust, industrial-grade machine with a higher capacity than its first model. Multiple M2 printers can be strung together and linked to a component that automatically washes and finishes the objects.

Similarly, a new, larger printer from 3D Systems can produce plastic parts at 50 times the rate of its current systems, according to the company. It also includes a part-washing unit.

3D Systems was the first company to commercialize the popular stereolithography method of 3-D printing, which uses ultraviolet light to cure photosensitive polymers. The UV beam forms each layer of the object by activating cross-linkers in the polymer.

Carbon’s production method does not require layer-by-layer curing. Its machines pull fully formed objects from a vat of polymer with the help of a polymer shaping process that uses a combination of UV light and oxygen.

Both companies are working to expand the range of materials their machines can accommodate. Carbon can print with rigid and flexible polyurethanes and a rigid cyanate ester. 3D Systems machines print in nylon, metals, and specialty dental polymers.

Printing giant HP introduced its Jet Fusion 3-D printer late last year and is looking for new polymers. HP’s technique builds parts from layers of powdered plastic that are sprayed with special hardening agents. At the conference, the company unveiled a materials applications lab in Corvallis, Ore., where polymer makers including BASF and Evonik Industries can certify materials for use on the $130,000 machines.

The entry of HP into the business will help the industrial market grow this year, according to the technology tracking firm Context. Overall, the 3-D printing market, including materials, will grow from less than $5 billion in 2015 to $16 billion by 2020, Context says.



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