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AM is taking over composites at JEC World 2023

The interest for 3D printing technologies is growing exponentially, even beyond LFAM

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Ever since VoxelMatters, through all its previous incarnations, began monitoring the exciting segment of composite additive manufacturing over 7 years ago, it was clear how synergic these technologies and materials could become. Segment operators may have underestimated the complexity of implementing AM in composites, however adoption and technological evolution have been fast and many of the challenges that have emerged are now being addressed, with value propositions emerging more clearly. The variety of processes seen at JEC World 2023, that now enable composite parts to be produced additively, is expanding to include large format, continuous fiber and other hybrid and indirect approaches. Starting with the ability to produce increasingly large and complex composite tools.

Of all the companies that are now starting to reap benefits from the composites AM market, no one has done more to build it than Airtech. Giants such as SABIC and Mitsubishi made early investments and progressively divested from a composites AM market that could not represent even a tiny fraction of the size of their more established traditional businesses (in terms of revenues AM represents less than 0.5% of these companies’ polymer businesses and in terms of volumes this percentage is even smaller). Through the Airtech Advanced Materials Group, the California company (with a large European HQ in Luxemburg) has established a strong leadership offering the Dahltram series of pelletized materials, that are specifically developed for high-end large-format composites additive manufacturing applications. As the number of companies offering LFAM composite tooling systems and services increased exponentially over the past five years, the demand for Dahltram materials has also grown significantly.

Today just about every company involved in LFAM (see below) uses them and Airtech is also a major adopter through internal Thermwood LSAM systems and the Airtech 3D division specialized in 3D printing of composite tooling. There could not be a better time to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary with a huge celebration at JEC World, along with the opening of a new division in India. Airtech’s President and CEO, Jeff Dahlgren, who has spent 42 of those 50 years at the company, confirmed to VoxelMatters that additive manufacturing is without a doubt a highly strategic segment for the company’s future and that Airtech intends to continue to invest to build this market.

The big guys in composites AM

So who are the companies that have been building the LFAM systems to use Airtech’s materials? And what are they up to? Almost all of them were present at JEC World and many of them presented either new technologies, new systems, or breakthrough new applications (many of which dealt with CTE issues, a major challenge to overcome in order to make adoption of 3D printed composite tools more widespread).

CMS

Among these, CMS has been able to build up a significant installed base of industrial systems for its Kreator platform by exclusively targeting direct applications (large tools, jigs and fixtures). Not satisfied, the company presented the new and significantly larger platform, with several sizes all the way up to the largest Poseidon system, capable of depositing as much as 100 Kg/h of material via a simplified 45° extruder that can also print horizontally (at 90°). The company also developed a system to address issues in CTE (coefficient of thermal expansion): as shown in the central image of the photo gallery below, a moving part on the tool printed using Airtech’s Dahltram materials can accommodate the different expansion rates of the tool and composite part.

Caracol

Caracol AM is one of the companies that is contributing the most in terms of new ideas to the composite LFAM market. Driven by a young and capable team, CARACOL introduced the HERON AM complete robotic extrusion solution and continues to develop new applications, especially in terms of addressing more sustainable practices and exploring new markets. As we saw during the recent Milan Design Week, Caracol works with several furniture designers. Among the industrial applications, a partnership with Italian energy giant Enel Green Power is leading to the development of (2-meter tall) microturbine blades as well as new horizontal turbines for wind energy generation, using recycled polypropylene with 30% glass fiber reinforcement. The glass fiber comes from used wind turbines while the PP comes from post-consumer and industrial uses). This project showed a lead time reduction from 12 to 5/6 weeks and a cost reduction of up to 60%

AM is taking over composites at JEC World 2023, as the interest for 3D printing technologies grows exponentially, even beyond LFAM

Belotti

Besides CMS and Caracol, many other leading CNC and machine tool companies are consolidating their composites LFAM offer. Belotti has implemented the CEAD extruder system on the BEAD systems, for an all-in-one gantry solution for additive and subtractive manufacturing. The FLU 2617 system can print at a 45-degree angle and deposit from 12 Kg to 80 Kg of composite pellet materials per hour, at up to 400°.

AM is taking over composites at JEC World 2023, as the interest for 3D printing technologies grows exponentially, even beyond LFAM

Ingersoll

With the Masterprint 3X, Ingersoll has built the largest gantry-based composite 3D printer in the world. the company leverages its advanced expertise with large CNC for metals to produce some of the most advanced composite tools around. At this year’s booth Ingersoll was showing a 4.5-meter-long pattern for a composite tool but Daniele Martani, who is in charge of Camozzi’s (Ingersoll mother company) AM activities, told VoxelMatters that the company is currently working on a 10-meter long tool. By creating a pattern for a composite mold, instead of directly printing the mold, Ingersoll can eliminate CTE issues however the process is much longer and more expensive. A possible solution could come from the new Hybrid Technology Enabler 3 integrated system for additive, measurement (3D inspection) and subtractive manufacturing of tools and final parts.

Krauss Maffei

One of the most relevant new products seen at JEC World 2023 (it was originally presented at Formnext 2022 last November), is the new 3D printer from German company Krauss Maffei, the first German to aggressively and directly target the composites LFAM segment via an internally developed machine (Weber Additive also introduced a series of LFAM systems in collaboration with Ai Build). The Krauss Maffei powerPrint and precisionPrint systems target industrial applications and series production of final parts.

Thermwood

With a very significant installed based on the US market, Thermwood is arguably the market leader in terms of machine sales to date. The company – whose systems are also used internally by Airtech 3D – was able to exploit the market created by Cincinnati Inc with the original BAAM technology (which has since disappeared) and rapidly qualify its LSAM (Large Scale Additive Manufacturing) technology for several important applications across aerospace (and helicopters), maritime and tools in general.

CEAD

Similar to Caracol in its innovative approach, with a focus on hardware and system integration, Dutch company CEAD had several applications to show at its booth (including a complete and functional car, created as a project by Eindhoven University students). The biggest news for the company is the development, in partnership with GKN Aerospace, of a new hybrid technology called ATLAM. The automated tape layering additive manufacturing process combines the two composite manufacturing processes to produce significantly stronger and stiffer parts.

More composite AM stories

The ones mentioned above are just a few of the companies that have developed larger format additive manufacturing systems but there are more.
Breton, another Italian company (along with CMS, Caracol, Belotti and Camozzi) also developed a large format gantry system and showed some high-quality furniture created in partnership with the brand Chateu d’Ax.
M.torres, a Spanish company, developed a robotic extrusion system for large composite final parts, targeting the aerospace and marine segment primarily.
Orbital Composites is a very different company: it is still very much in the startup phase however its latest AMCM technology – which was co-developed with and just licensed from ORNL in the US – can produce advanced continuous fiber-reinforced composite parts.
Then there are the companies that use LFAM 3D printers to provide production services. One of these is Ascent Aerospace, which specializes in advanced aerospace tools using Airtech materials.

Massivit and 9T are also regular exhibitors at JEC World, featuring hybrid AM technologies and systems that are unlike any other seen on the show floor. 9T stands out for its additive fusion technology’s ability to rapidly produce hundreds and even thousands of final parts by combining additive manufacturing and molding. This technology can be used to produce small parts, such as watch cases for Oris, but also – potentially – for final motorcycle components that have to undergo extreme stresses.

Massivit – which showed off a massive new logo for its corporate rebranding – does something similar with the 10000-G system, which 3D prints a mold in which to deposit epoxy thermoset resin to create complex, large format composite molds that can withstand very high temperatures in an autoclave. This solution can now also be used to create molds to produce foam parts, such as the saddle in the motorcycle prototype shown below.

A composite material revolution

In a manufacturing segment defined not only by the materials it uses but by their combination, it should come as no surprise that material manufacturers play a major role. Said of Airtech’s current dominance of the composite additive manufacturing market (and of SABIC’s ongoing divestment), other major material manufacturers who are involved in the composites market (either through fiber reinforcements or thermoset and thermoplastic matrix materials) are taking a keen interest in composite AM (or at least starting to consider it as a strategic niche segment).

For example, Hexcel, a giant manufacturer of carbon fiber reinforcements and resin systems, acquired what is now the HexAM business (SLS of high-temperature PEKK-based composites) from OPM and for the first time this year had a person who could at least answer some questions on this business (if only to say that it is currently of very small importance).
Zoltek (part of the Toray group), a giant manufacturer of cost-efficient carbon fiber, went one step further and told VoxelMatters that its business of supplying milled carbon fiber for composite AM materials is currently a niche of a niche but is still considered highly strategic for the future. Possibly even by integrating large tows into large format 3D printing nozzles.

HexAM parts by Hexcel

Then there are giant (mostly) polymer resin manufacturers) that are already significantly more active in polymer AM and looking in on composite AM. We mentioned earlier how Mitsubishi divested from the low-cost filament and pellet business but the company is now focusing on a new range of high-temperature carbon-fiber composite filaments for Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D printing. With the addition of these products to the KyronMAX family, MCG Advanced Materials aims to demonstrate the potential of directly 3D printing carbon-fiber composite parts, while still benefiting from the properties of the high-strength material.

Large chemical companies such as Arkema, Evonik, Solvay and LEHVOSS mostly offer resin (matrix) materials for composites. In most cases these are not directly related to these companies’ 3D printing materials business however the resins can be based on the same materials. For example, Arkema’s Kepstan PEKK is used as a thermoplastic matrix but also as a neat polymer for both SLS powders (EOS) and FDM filaments (Stratasys). Solvay (Ketaspire, Novaspire, etc.), LEHVOSS (LUVOCOM) and Evonik (Infinam) – as well as Ensinger – also offer filaments, pellets and/or powders ranges for composite additive manufacturing. All these companies have consolidated brands of neat advanced polymer as well as composite materials.

Finally, new companies are emerging with very unique products that target very specific areas of additive manufacturing. For example, Utah-based startup Vartega fine-tuned a process to recycle used carbon fiber and uses it to produce composite PP-CF filament, in collaboration with polypropylene market leader Braskem. Catack-H, a South Korean, also developed a technology to recycle carbon fiber and uses it to make composite filaments (currently ABS and nylon). The company’s chemical decomposition method produces high-quality recycled carbon fibers with a recovery rate of more than 90%. This is possible (and also more cost-effective) because there is no high-temperature treatment so there is no surface damage on the carbon fibers and the material remains intact (and contains less than 2% decomposed epoxy residue).

Swiss company Suprem presented an even more targeted product. The Filaprem brand of continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composite filaments, dedicated to 3D printing, can be used by a handful of companies that offer filament extrusion technologies with the ability to cut the continuous fiber at the end of the print or when needed during the print. Anisoprint offers such systems and so do a few other small hardware manufacturers. The result could be something similar to Markforged’s technology. Which begs the question: in all this, where was Markforged’s composite 3D printing technology?

AM is taking over composites at JEC World 2023, as the interest for 3D printing technologies grows exponentially, even beyond LFAM
Filaprem continuous fiber reinforced filament from Suprem, and a thin wall 3D printed part.
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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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