The JEC World show in Paris, coming back this year after two editions off due to the COVID pandemic, is where the composites community comes together to show the latest achievements and to plan the business for the next twelve months. This very horizontal segment (much like additive manufacturing) seeks to attract adopters from the aerospace, high-end automotive, sporting, luxury goods, and some consumer products segments. Within composites manufacturing, there’s a space (or multiple spaces) where additive manufacturing technologies come into place. We have been following this intersection and its evolutions very closely for the past several years. In 2021, 3dpbm published its first market report on Composites AM, highlighting several trends among which the growing commercial relevance in the use of chopped fiber reinforced thermoplastic granulates. JEC World 2022 showed that this is exactly what is happening in composites AM, along with a few other interesting innovations.
LFAM for tools and parts
While the concept of composite 3D printing was first envisioned by companies like Markforged and Anisoprint and focused on relatively small parts and continuous fiber, neither company was present at JEC Word with a booth (Anisoprint’s Co-founder Anton Fedorov explains why below). Today, 3D printing very large parts using chopped fiber reinforced pellet materials is the primary commercial opportunity for composites AM and it is also one of the biggest (literally) commercial opportunities for all of 3D printing. No other AM process uses these quantities of materials and has these capabilities in terms of yearly metric tonnage of parts produced.
The number of companies now active in manufacturing LFAM systems has also grown significantly. From the initial three (Cincinnati Inc, Thermwood – both US-based and not present with a booth at the show – and the Italian-American Ingersoll/Camozzi) the total number has now grown to nearly 10, with more on the way. Said of Ingersoll/Camozzi and its Masterprint systems, another company with a composite LFAM system on the market is CNC-specialist CMS, with the Kreator system based on Screw Extrusion Additive Manufacturing (SEAM). Another CNC specialist, Breton, introduced the Genesi LFAM family of systems leveraging machine learning algorithms and advanced artificial intelligence systems to achieve high-level mechanical and aesthetic properties in the parts, while Belotti worked with composite LFAM pioneers CEAD to integrate their extrusion engines into the BEAD additive and subtractive LFAM system.
All these companies are based either in North America or in Northern Italy but LFAM of composites is becoming an increasingly global trend, with Spanish company MTorres (headquartered in Pamplona) also introducing its own patented technology for manufacturing large components through additive manufacturing, through a patented process developed for the TorresPrint3D system.
Looking for killer applications
But even LFAM of composites is far from becoming a consolidated let alone mature industry segment. Today the killer applications for composites LFAM are giant tools used in the maritime and aerospace industries. However, the thermoplastic matrix materials used to make these tools are not yet capable of withstanding the high autoclave temperatures while maintaining the accurate tolerances required for certain parts in aerospace manufacturing, thus limiting the technology’s scope and potential in our of the most important adopting industries.
There are different ways to address this challenge. One is through the development of even more advanced thermoplastic matrix materials. Companies such as Airtech, Mitsubishi MCPP, Covestro, Solvay and Arkema all now offer a selection of pellet materials optimized based on advanced thermoplastics for LFAM applications although this still represents a minor area of business. In fact, the smallest among these companies, Airtech, is probably the one that has the current leadership in this segment through the Printech division.
Another approach is to change the scope of LFAM applications. For example, because deposition and production rates are so fast, this technology can be used to cost-effectively produce large final parts – even replacing certain metal objects. During the show, we spoke extensively with the company’s CO-founder and CEO Lucas Janssen who explained how CEAD went from targeting continuous fiber composite AM to being able to offer broad-reaching industrial manufacturing services. today the company’s target is made of both tools and final parts – including consumer applications such as a cost-effective chimney or a seat made with recycled PET-G material supplied by MCPP (the current supplier of PET-G and recycled PET-G for LFAM 3D printing).
Other companies that, like CEAD, started out targeting continuous fiber composites AM, such as Arevo and Continuous Composites, reserved their spot at the show but did not make it (the booths were empty). Electroimpact, one of the newcomers in the continuous composites AM segment, was present at JEC but is still fine-tuning its AM system which likely represents only a minor area of business.
Back to the thermosets
If thermoplastics don’t cut it for autoclaves, thermosets do. There is only one problem: thermosets are damn hard – if not nearly impossible – to large format 3D print. But nothing is impossible in 3D printing, so two 3D printing companies, in particular, presented very unique and innovative solutions.
The first is Israeli company Massivit, which chose JEC World 2022 to officially launch the Massivit 10000 system for composite tooling. Massivit has been on the market for a decade (we first visited it in 2015), and we had a chance to meet and speak with CEO and founder Erez Zimermann about the company’s success and installed base. This latest machine uses Massivit’s high-speed, large format and proprietary Gel Dispensing Printing (GDP) process to produce composite tools that can be used in autoclaves (currently at around 170° but the goal is to go well beyond 200°). The unique Massivit process enables the production of these 3D printed tools using pure epoxy resin: GDP process, the epoxy is poured into a 3D printed shell that can be broken and washed away with water, leaving the geometrically complex epoxy tool.
Another new and innovative approach comes from a US company called Magnum Venus Products (MVP). The company, a global manufacturer of fluid movement and production solutions for industrial applications in composites and adhesives markets, developed a new LFAM process and systems to produce molds using reactive, exothermic, thermoset resins. The company’s unique RAM (Reactive Additive Manufacturing) process enables the cost-effective printing of thermoset materials to produce large-scale parts in various resolutions using novel pumping technology of reactive deposition materials to near neat shape (followed by subtractive finishing). This makes MVP’s RAM 816 system the only large-scale 3D printer for thermoset materials on the market today.
(Serial) Composite manufacturing is hard
Elon Musk recently said that “manufacturing is hard”, referring to the fact that most underestimate (and don’t particularly care about) the challenges that go into producing real objects that work. But if manufacturing, in general, is hard, composites manufacturing is even harder. These materials can offer the best mechanical properties anywhere in terms of lightweight, strength, flexibility, temperature resistance, and even hardness. But they are unbelievably hard to work with because they involve so many different elements: matrices, reinforcements, and tools. Each one of these has to deal with both the macro and microscopic effects of any production process. Composite serial manufacturing doesn’t really exist as most composite parts require la large amount of human and specialized labor. Some 3D printing companies are trying to address this vacuum but in order to do that, they need to be able to significantly accelerate and automate the process without sacrificing mechanical properties.
“That’s one of the reasons why we are not present as exhibitors,” Anisoprint CEO Fedor Antonov explained when we met, adding that Anisoprint parts are present at the booths of many of their clients. “Composite companies are not impressed by 3D printed part properties. Processes and machines such as ours are more effective in the general polymer 3D printing segment, at shows like Formnext, where we can offer the same types of parts and processes – from prototype to production – with superior mechanical properties compared to unreinforced polymer parts.
One company trying to bring the strength of advanced continuous fiber composites into serial production of large batches of relatively small parts is Zurich-based 9T Labs. The company has come a long way since it spun off of ETH and attracted significant investments, including from Stratasys. We finally got to see the process up close and it’s not simple but it could be cost-effective for certain types of applications. 9T’s Additive Fusion Technology starts by 3D printing different components of a part using continuous fiber and an advanced thermoplastic polymer matrix. By 3D printing them, it’s possible to ensure anisotropic properties and more complex geometries. These are then assembled and placed in an industrial mold where the fusion process occurs, pressing and bonding all the elements together. This approach could open up the way to serial production of extremely strong continuous composite mechanical components for anything from aerospace, to automotive to motorcycle end-use part additive mass production.