Composites

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 mass produce parts that can offer an unparalleled combination of properties.

The reason why that is not the case is that traditional composite manufacturing – based on woven fiber sheets in a  thermoset (epoxy) resin matrix is among the most manual labor intensive – and costly  –  among manufacturing processes. Composites today are used to make high end automotive, sports equipment, medical and aircraft parts: products that are highly customized and not 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 the core element of it but it is not the only one: new technologies are emerging that more or less seamlessly combine AM processes within an automated end-to-end workflow in order to ensure the highest level of performance. This is inextricably connected to the use of continuous fibers.

However, composites AM is not just about top part performance but also about improving the performance of polymer 3D printed parts, to make parts stronger, lighter and larger. This is where additive manufacturing of chopped fiber composites found its – rapidly growing –  niche. 3D printing with chopped fibers of differing lengths is much less complicated than 3D printing with continuous fibers and it emerged first.

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