When we talk about ceramic additive manufacturing, many think of ceramic slurries or powders being extruded or binder jetted. Most, however, will not automatically think of filament-based 3D printing—and for good reason. Currently, there is only one company on the market that offers ceramic filaments for industrial applications: French company Nanoe.
We recently got the chance to speak to Nanoe CEO Guillaume de Calan as part of our monthly industry focus on ceramics AM. Through our conversation we learned about the company’s beginnings, its recent entry into ceramic filaments with the launch of Zetamix and how Nanoe envisions the ceramics AM market at large.
Tess Boissonneault: When was Nanoe founded? And how did the company become interested in 3D printed ceramics?
Guillaume de Calan: We created the company in 2008 as a spin off from our university lab (École Centrale Paris). We found an interesting process to produce nano-materials and decided to create a company to put these nano-materials on the market. Very soon, we became specialized in high tech raw materials for the ceramic industry, with product lines dedicated to pressing, injection molding, casting and extruding ceramics.
This is how we became interested in 3D printing: it was the next step of development for the company. More and more industrial customers are trying to shift their prototyping, small series production and (in the long term) actual production to 3D printing, so we needed to adapt our raw materials to this process.
TB: Can you talk about your Zetamix filaments which were first introduced at CERAMITEC 2018?
GdC: When we decided to launch 3D printing consumables for ceramics, we had a look at the current market. There are a few niche players for ceramic 3D printing, but it is still very small compared to metal and plastics. One of the reasons for this is that ceramics are difficult materials to shape and process. Another reason is that to print ceramics, you need dedicated 3D printing machines that are very expensive.
We decided to take a different approach and to adapt our raw material to existing machines readily available on the market. This logically led us to start with FDM printers, and we launched a line of ceramic filaments that are compatible with any FDM printer.
Basically, our filament is a mix of plastic binder and ceramic powder, that you can print with an FDM printer and then de-bind and sinter in a furnace to get a dense ceramic piece. This process is very similar to MIM and CIM (Metal and Ceramic Injection Molding).
TB: What have been some of the challenges in developing ceramic filaments? (as opposed to ceramic slurries or powders)
GdC: In order to have a proper ceramic or metal filament, we needed to formulate a mix with a very high content of powder, minimum 50% volume, which means between 82% and 95% weight, depending on the density of the material. At these levels of loading, filament can be very hard to extrude and very brittle. Being able to adapt to different printers also adds a level of difficulty, since you need a very robust filament. And finally, you also need to be able to de-bind and sinter the parts without cracking them.
We developed a specific formulation that allows relatively flexible filament, with as low binder content as possible, which is compatible with most FDM printers.
TB: What are the requirements for an FDM 3D printer to be compatible with your ceramic filaments?
GdC: Though the material is compatible with any FDM printer, we do recommend some small adjustments. First, because the filament is extremely abrasive, you need to replace the brass nozzle by something stronger (ideally with a ruby or ceramic tip). Also, since the filament is quite brittle, you sometimes need to replace the extrusion gear with a smooth or a grooved version. These are really minor modifications which will take a few hours at worst. However, for those who want to start faster, we also supply modified FDM printers adapted to our filament.
TB: What industries and/or applications will seek to benefit the most from ceramic filaments?
GdC: The first application we’re seeing is for our current customer making technical ceramic parts. This new process will complement their more traditional processes to make prototypes, small series production and highly technical parts. Looking more long term, we see obvious applications in the jewelry, medical and aerospace industries.
TB: I saw that Nanoe is developing zirconia and Alumina filaments—can you give any insight into how these technical ceramics function in filament form?
GdC: Actually, the zirconia and alumina filament are now ready and on the market. The process is exactly the same as with our ZTA filament. The only difference is on sintering temperatures: 1450°C for zirconia, and 1580°C for alumina.
TB: What types of densities have you achieved with Zetamix post-sintering?
GdC: Density depends a lot on the printing parameters. The best densities we obtained on printed parts with optimum process is 99%, which means around 3,9 g/cm3 for alumina, 6 g/cm3 for zirconia. This is really very good and comparable with traditional processes, where we usually aim for 99.5% of theoretical density.
TB: What do you think the role of ceramic filaments will be in the future of ceramic additive manufacturing?
GdC: We don’t see our technology as a competitor to the current technologies already on the market, which are mainly based on stereolithography. Our filaments will answer to different needs, with a slightly lower resolution (minimum z at 50µ instead of 10 or 20µ for SLA), but with faster printing speeds and different possibilities.
TB: What are your thoughts on the outlook for ceramic 3D printing more generally?
GdC: The market for ceramic 3D printing is not mature yet. It is very similar to how the metal 3D printing market was a decade or two ago: lots of potential interest, but very few companies have already found a business case for it and they are still trying to learn how to use it.
This is where we hit a deadlock: ceramic manufacturers can’t spend several hundred thousands of dollars on a machine they don’t have applications for, and they can’t find these applications without the machines in house… This is the problem we are trying to address with our technology, which enables the first affordable, desktop ceramic 3D printing.
TB: Finally, what are the next steps for Nanoe in the ceramic filament sphere?
GdC: Actually, our next step is to go outside of ceramics. We initially created this technology to print our raw materials, but following requests from some of our customers, we are going to launch a full line of ceramic and metal filaments under our Zetamix brand. This means that before the end of this year, we should release new materials for our filaments, based on SiC, Si3N4, WC-Co, and stainless steel. Other materials may follow.
Of course, on the metal part, the competition is already there, and in some cases have very good results already. But we believe that our open system approach will bring something new to the market, since the current MIM-like 3D printing solutions are closed system where you still need to buy a dedicated machine.