Though metal additive manufacturing might often seem like the height of the technology, there is another area of AM that is gradually gaining prominence: ceramic 3D printing. Here, I’m not just talking about 3D printed vases and homewares, which have been explored at many levels in the industry and design world, but the additive manufacturing of technical ceramics, a group of materials whose properties are often more beneficial than even the most sought after metals.
With wide ranging applications in the medical, aerospace, electronics and consumer goods industries, and with market analysts expecting technical ceramic AM to grow from a $174 million market in 2017 to a $3.1 billion market by 2027, ceramics are a promising avenue for the additive manufacturing sector. Still, the ceramic AM sector is in its relative infancy, and still has a way to go before transforming from a niche, somewhat experimental area of the AM industry into a full-fledged, widely adopted technology.
Haim Levi, VP of Manufacturing and Defense markets at XJet Ltd.—the company behind the Carmel 1400 metal and ceramic 3D printer and NanoParticle Jetting technology—recently spoke to us about the current state of ceramic AM and how we can expect to see the technology evolve in the near future.
What ceramics bring to additive manufacturing
Looking first at the benefits of ceramic additive manufacturing, Levi tells us: “I am a big believer in ceramics because of their fantastic properties. Today, it is still considered too expensive, but it’s growing fast and we’re seeing more and more applications moving from metals to ceramics. That’s because metals—even the best of them—are reaching their limit of performance and that is exactly where technical ceramics start to shine. Properties like high temperature resistance and abrasion resistance are better controlled in ceramics than metals.”
“Ceramics are also good for oxygen detection, semi-conducting, isolation,” he continues. “The same family of material can either be used as an insulator, a conductor or semi-conductor, it’s amazing! And the amount you can control technical ceramics is equally impressive .
“Currently, I think we are starting to see some of the first innovative technologies for ceramic AM, but we should see more and more coming as the market continues to grow and attracts the attention of other companies that are active in the field of additive manufacturing. Today, many are sitting on the sidelines and looking at what is going to happen. Once they decide to take the plunge, they will join the existing ceramic AM players. I’m confident this will happen in the next few years.”
Challenges facing ceramic AM
Moving on from the numerous benefits of ceramic AM, Levi addresses some of the challenges that still face the nascent technology and emphasizes that they are all surmountable in time.
“There are some limits,” he says. “First of all, the technology does not fit the needs of serial production, something that applies to the whole additive manufacturing sector. Additionally, there are also challenges in materials, which I’ll come back to. Ceramic AM on the whole is in relative infancy and it reminds me of when we were here with metals and before that with polymers. I have been in the industry for 32 years now, so I’ve seen them all. Overall, the main challenges now are materials, final properties, simplifying the process and safety issues.”
Levi adds that in terms of safety, ceramic AM does not face as many obstacles as metal 3D printing because it relies primarily on slurries or other non-powder materials. In XJET’s case, its NanoParticle Jetting technology uses a liquid that contains ceramic nanoparticles and which is safe to use.
“There are still limitations for ceramic AM even for small series production,” Levi continues. “In general, the process has to be sped up and simplified to increase productivity. Part of achieving this will rely on combining ceramic AM with other manufacturing processes to achieve better automation. All of these are challenging issues, but I’m confident that ceramic AM will take its place. Also, it is helped by the fact that many companies that are today utilizing metal or polymer AM will be willing to test and adopt the ceramics AM technology more easily.”
“I should also emphasize that technical ceramics is also a relatively new field, which has been taking its first steps into the manufacturing world very impressively. Here I’m talking about traditional technologies for technical ceramics, like injection molding, HIP, CIP and other technologies that are allowing more and more companies to move—slowly but surely—from metals into ceramics.”
Next steps for ceramic AM adoption
Levi elaborates on how he believes ceramic AM adoption will progress: “Like any other new technology, it will first need to get initial approval and that will be done when a large, appreciated user adopts the technology and gives it the ‘OK.’ Once that happens, it will gradually cause a snowball effect. Until then, ceramic additive manufacturing will have to gain more and more experience and approval from initial adopters.”
Referencing Geoffrey Moore’s influential book Crossing the Chasm, Levi breaks down what the main phases are for a new technology’s adoption and where on that spectrum ceramic AM currently is.
“The first adopters are technical adopters, or geeks,” he explains. “That’s where we are right now. Technical geeks are adopting ceramics in additive manufacturing. Then, the first serious companies will adopt it and that’s called the early adopters. The next significant step will be a big company adopting it—what we call the early market or early majority market. To get there, we need to gain success stories to show that ceramic AM is doing the job for real life applications.”
“The amount of ceramic AM machines sold is really small today,” he adds, citing the number somewhere in the tens. “But the need is there. Realistically, it will take a few years until a really large corporation will buy it and start working with it. But I know it will happen because I am talking to them and they are talking to us. Right now, players in ceramic AM have to not give up, work to offer more materials and go to every trade show.”
Looking to XJET’s horizon
Looking specifically at XJET and its ceramic NanoParticle Jetting technology, Levi says the next big step for the company will be to develop and offer more materials to its users. Presently, the company has one ceramic material available, a zirconia-based technical ceramic, though it is developing other materials such as alumina, silicon carbide and others.
“The next step for us is definitely developing materials. We are looking at classical technical ceramics and even some more exotic ones down the line. It will take some time, but I think that even as soon as next year we could release at least two or three additional ceramics.”
In terms of its printing hardware, Levi says that three of its NPJ machines are already installed and that a fourth and fifth are currently being installed. Each of them will be used by XJET clients for ceramic additive manufacturing.
“The feedback is very good,” he says. “Of course, there are some ‘childhood sicknesses,’ as we call them. Being the first machines installed, we need to support them and fix certain problems that arise. Nevertheless, once we have solved each problem, we are seeing others solved in parallel, so the machines are becoming more stable and are starting to be used to produce parts.”
“We have one machine in Germany, one in the U.S., one in Moscow and another in Israel that is being installed. And the fifth one—which is not publicly disclosed yet—is belongs to a very large corporation in Switzerland. The machine there is running there nicely.”
“It will take time,” concludes Levi about the adoption of ceramic AM. “But I don’t see a reason right now that additive manufacturing and ceramic AM specifically will be just a ‘flyby’ phenomenon. I do have some disagreements with people who think it will happen faster. I think it will take time, but I’m sure it will get there.”