This new VoxelMatters Map of Composites Additive Manufacturing Technologies and companies is meant as a base to help users make sense of all the different paths through which composites AM is evolving. Compared to previous editions, a few companies have been removed (mainly in the filament material extrusion segment) to focus on hardware manufacturers that can guarantee industrial-grade performances. A few other companies have been added, mainly in the pellet LFAM segment.
Out of all the families of materials used for additive manufacturing, fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites present unique characteristics, benefits, and challenges. Additive manufacturing promises to evolve the adoption of composite materials, making it more efficient, cost-effective and fast to produce parts that can offer an unparalleled combination of properties: in an ideal world, just about everything would be made of composite materials.
Today, traditional composite manufacturing—which remains largely based on woven fiber sheets and thermoset (epoxy) resins—is among the most manual labor intensive—and costly—among manufacturing processes. Automated composite lay-up systems exist but they are limited in scope and very CapEx intensive.
And yet, within a global market that is estimated to generate nearly $100 billion in yearly revenues in 2020, potentially doubling by 2030, composites are among the fastest-growing industrial segments and the most rapidly evolving. AM is now expected to play a very big part in this process through a wide and growing variety of technologies and processes.
In its new report on composites AM, 3dpbm Research identified and presented 10-year forecasts of the demand and revenue possibilities for three main development areas, each further split into several subsegments: cartesian material extrusion, multi-axis robotic extrusion and powder bed fusion.
Finding similarities to map out technological families is particularly complex in composites AM because of the multi-layered complexity of both the materials and the hardware systems involved. So powder bed fusion processes may present similarities to cartesian extrusion technologies in terms of the type of materials used (chopped fiber FRP). At the same time, cartesian extrusion processes present technological similarities to multi-axis extrusion systems but present significant differences in terms of costs and approach to the use of continuous fibers.
The ability to correctly identify the benefits and potential of each technology is of particular strategic importance now that this segment is still in an early phase of development. VoxelMatters expects that composites AM will play a fundamental role in several industrial adoption segments, from high-end automotive components to sporting equipment, and medical and aircraft parts: products that are highly customized and not usually mass-produced. The ultimate goal of the firms working on additive manufacturing of composites is to make the production of composite parts scalable, without sacrificing materials’ properties.
Achieving this goal requires some of the most complex manufacturing engineering know-how, along with some of the most complex manufacturing hardware and software that has ever been developed. The transition towards automated, mass-produced composite parts will be a gradual one. Additive manufacturing is a core element in this transition but it is not the only one: new technologies are emerging that seamlessly combine AM processes within automated end-to-end workflows, in order to ensure the highest level of performance. This is inextricably connected to the use of continuous fibers.
Composites AM is also about improving the performance (and in some cases the printability) of polymer 3D printed parts, to make them stronger, lighter, and larger. This is where additive manufacturing of chopped fiber composites found its—rapidly growing—niche. 3D printing with chopped fibers is less complex than 3D printing with continuous fibers and is now rapidly emerging as a viable commercial opportunity for the short and medium-term.