Dunham sees vast potential for powder bed fusion and material extrusion 3D-printing technologies in automotive and aerospace applications, growing in manufacturing-support roles in the production of forming tools and mold components, and a move into direct end-use part production altogether. “There are examples of laser sintered parts in production automobiles today in the very high-end luxury and supercar segments, which help demonstrate the viability of these in a production sense. In aerospace, cabin components are already being made now that there is a growing suite of flame-retardant materials across more than one print technology,” says Dunham. Lightweighting will continue to drive the use of powder bed fusion in automotive and aerospace, he adds. Advanced high-temperature thermoplastic composites such as carbon-reinforced PEKK and the downstream cost benefits of lightweighting will maintain a high level of interest in 3D printing in these markets.
PlasticsToday also asked Dunham about the challenges that 3D printing faces today and what is being done to overcome them. “Speaking generally, the plastic 3D-printing processes and solutions are in a phase somewhere between prototyping and full-on industrialization, moving toward the latter,” responds Dunham. Noting that there will continue to be good demand for plastics and polymer printers to make prototypes and models, “the requirements for automation, reliability, precision, material compatibility and ease of use are relatively lower in these areas.” Many segments are beginning to pull the 3D printing industry to manufacturing applications that require higher levels of industrialization in the technologies, he adds, noting that this is a good sign. “The 3D printing community at large is now feverishly developing evolutions of the existing processes that are more sensitive to cost-per-part, material compatibility and total productivity, achieving a higher level of quality assurance and scalability.”
The other big challenge, he adds, is injection molding. “Molding technologies have continued to advance and are very well entrenched in manufacturing,” says Dunham. “What is changing, however, is that users are beginning to realize how to properly differentiate between printing versus molding in terms of where each can be leveraged for maximum value. Printing of plastics is far more dynamic and can enable really interesting business models and products that are actively being explored. But molding is obviously still the workhorse and supports the global plastics manufacturing industry,” says Dunham.
SmarTech will present data from this report as well as from other research programs at its upcoming Analyst Day event taking place on September 27, 2018, in the Metro Boston area. Go to the company website for additional information.