The latest “Opportunities in Polymer and Plastic 3D Printing – 2017: An Opportunity Analysis and Ten-Year Forecast report” focuses on the material category of advanced thermoplastics, which are primarily those in the polyaryletherketone (PAEK) family, including PEEK and PEKK. This category also includes the polyetherimide family (ULTEM) used today primarily by Stratasys’ closed materials systems.
Based on growing use in powder bed fusion processes and a number of newly developed open materials-based extrusion systems, the report identifies and details the significant business opportunities for PAEK polymers over the next decade, as are expected to account for nearly 19 percent of total polymer 3D print material revenues by 2026, while representing just over 8 percent of total projected print material volume from professional and industrial polymer 3D printers.
Very recently, startup vendors have begun designing quality extrusion systems at a lower price point that are focusing on processing advanced thermoplastics in filament form, mostly PEEK. Developers of these printers and materials include Roboze in Italy, Indmatec in Germany (the name of the company was changed to Apium Additive Technologies GmbH in November 2016) and Verashape in Poland. Apium (formerly Indmatec) was the first company to introduce PEEK filament to the additive manufacturing industry and also the first company to develop an FFF-based 3D printer for PEEK.
PAEK applications in PBF
Several elements suggest increased PAEK adoption especially in SLS processes.
# 1. Leading manufacturer EOS is already offering PEEK for SLS. PAEK family polymers are 3D printable in material extrusion but are currently used primarily in powder bed fusion processes. Leading SLS system manufacturer EOS offers its own certified PEEK material (developed with Rauch), making it the only current provider of a readily approved advanced thermoplastic powder for its own technology.
# 2. PAEK family polymers are used in high-cost industries. Adoption of these materials is driven by the demand of very high-performance components, combining high strength, lightweight materials and advanced geometries possible through AM. Currently, the aerospace and medical industries are leading the way in 3D printing of advanced thermoplastic powders utilizing SLS, although growth in energy, defense, and sectors is expected.
# 3. PEKK 3D printed medical implants are now load-bearing capable. Growth is expected in the area of medical implants made of PEKK and PEEK, as the load-bearing capabilities of printed PEKK parts through laser sintering has now been achieved with Oxford Performance Materials’ SpineFab implant. While titanium alloy has been the leader in printed orthopedic implants for nearly a decade, titanium implants may lose some competitive advantage should costs of titanium powder remain high — recent studies have shown promising results in the ability of PEKK implants to achieve appropriate load bearing strength for orthopedic implants, while remaining lighter overall.
A PEEK at future markets for extrusion
The report goes on to detail PEEK and PEKK will partially and gradually replace ULTEM, which currently accounts for the vast majority of revenues generated from 3D printable advanced thermoplastics. As ULTEM currently exorbitant prices decrease, PEEK/PEKK adoption rates in extrusion technology are likely to increase due to the increased presence of material extrusion systems, outside of those provided by Stratasys, that are beginning to become commercially available.
The Roboze One+400 printer, announced by Italian printer manufacturer Roboze in November 2015, is claimed to be able to achieve 400 degrees Celsius in the extruder, allowing for the printing of both of PEEK and PEI filaments. Roboze developed a special cooling system to stabilize the material and avoid warping issues at these elevated extrusion temperatures, without breaching Stratasys’ sealed chamber patent. Meanwhile, German company INDMATEC announced in 2015 what is perhaps the first PEEK filament available for 3D printers, to use in a compatible system which is expected to be priced at around $40,000 when it will become fully available on the market. In 2016 Verashape announced that its VSHAPER ONE Pro platform support 3D printing of high-temperature materials such as PEEK.
With availability opening up for advanced thermoplastic materials in both material extrusion and polymer powder bed fusion, the catalyst for growth in demand for these materials will revolve around the development of specific applications for advanced materials. These applications will be intrinsically linked to the replacement of existing metal structures or components in very high-performance products or industries. Thus, advanced thermoplastics will rely heavily on the acceptance of 3D printing as a manufacturing tool.
Another pivotal factor in the market for PAEK materials is whether or not they will be able to be reliably processed (as strongly hinted) by the incoming generation of thermal-based powder bed fusion systems, such as those from Hewlett Packard. With laser sintering properties of materials such as PEKK having spent over five years in development through various commercial entities, it may be some time before advanced thermoplastic powders become usable for alternate powder bed fusion approaches (if at all). Once that happens the market is likely to undergo a very significant shift.