While most high-resolution 3D printing technologies for ceramics remain quite expensive, Tethon 3D has been developing materials and processes which could bring high-quality 3D printed ceramics to more people and market segments than ever before. We caught up with Karen Linder, author, angel investor, entrepreneur, mentor, artist, scientist and also President and CEO of Tethon 3D, the first company to develop and commercialize third party ceramic powders and slurries for binder jetting and stereolithography processes.
The development of custom ceramic materials for manufacturing industries has been the highest growth activity for Tethon 3D in the past year and will continue to be a priority business strategy. Additive manufacturing is revolutionizing product production, including many applications for ceramic materials. A wide range of materials can be loosely defined as “ceramics” including many closely related composites having similar properties and behaviors that are suitable for 3D printing.
Davide Sher: Why did choose to focus on 3D printing of ceramics?
Karen Kinder: “Tethon 3D was founded to commercialize the academic research in binder-jet ceramic 3D printing that was initiated at Bowling Green State University more than a decade ago. Following those early investigations, the company was incubated in the Kaneko Experimental Studio in Omaha, Nebraska, founded by world-renowned large-scale ceramic sculptor Jun Kaneko. Tethon 3D’s commercial business and research activities are built upon a strong foundation of training and expertise in ceramics. We recognize the unique niche that ceramics fill in additive manufacturing and focus on providing the best products and service within our circle of competence.”
DS: Which are the main end-use applications for your stereolithography materials (ceramic glass and ceramic)?
KL: “The industries ideally suited for using Porcelite® and Vitrolite® are those who benefit from fabricating ceramic objects by 3D printing. In other words, objects with the physical properties of ceramic (heat shock tolerant and heat insulating, anti-corrosive, chemically resistant, and controllable porosity) that cannot be fabricated by traditional manufacturing methods. Engineers and designers utilize our materials in automotive, jewelry, manufacturing, aerospace, architecture, healthcare and other industries. Just a few examples of end-use products made from our materials are custom earbuds, filtration devices, sterile laboratory equipment and complex electrical insulators.“
3DPMN: What are the main benefits from using your materials?
KL: “Porcelite is an alumina-based ceramic resin. Directly after printing, the object is a polymer clay composite material, with its own value and applications. After sintering, the result is a pure porcelain body. This material has very high temperature stability of at least 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Vitrolite is a silica-based glass ceramic resin. Vitrolite is sintered at a lower temperature than Porcelite and, afterwards, is extremely dense. The part can subsequently be machined, if desired. Vitrolite® has an extremely smooth surface and is a milky white color. Genesis is another product that we offer that while technically not a ceramic, can be used to make novel ceramic materials. Genesis is a base resin that can be custom blended with many powders (including clays, metals and other inorganic materials) for SLA or DLP printing. Genesis is enabling our clients and partners to push new boundaries in ceramic 3D printing.“
DS: Which technologies/systems can your ceramic materials be used with?
KL: “Porcelite been validated on more than 15 SLA and DLP printers since its introduction in 2016. Vitrolite, just released in April 2017, has been tested on many of these same printers with good results. Each printer has optimal settings for our materials. We freely share this information and work with printer manufacturers to accommodate their platforms. Our materials are shipped to over 30 countries, usually by the liter and gallon, but we have the capacity to provide materials in 55-gallon drums. The market for our ceramic powders is not as large, if you are counting the number of individuals using binder-jet 3D printing, but the volume of material sold in tons is nearly equal to the volume of resins sold. As new binder-jet platforms come to the market, we are excited to see them use our materials.”
DS: Which are the main applications for your ceramics powder?
KL: “Tethon 3D manufactures Tethonite ceramic powders in earthenware, stoneware and porcelain varieties for use with powder/binder jet technology. We manufacture a specific binder that is compatible with our powders. The ideal applications for Tethonite ceramic powders with this hardware are large dimension and/or large scale production printing. Tethonite is not suitable for high-resolution details, but can print very large complex designs that cannot be made by injection or press molding. One interesting side note: we once formulated simulated Martian soil for a project to explore the use of 3D printing of structures on the surface of Mars.“
DS: Which do you consider to be the most practical technologies for 3D printing end-use ceramic parts?
KL: “The hardware technology for 3D printing of ceramics is continually evolving, becoming faster, accommodating larger print sizes, and higher resolution. The most practical choice of a printer is determined by the product specifications, and the market size. While industrial additive manufacturing calls for high volume production, it is desirable and practical to use desktop printers for ceramic 3D printing of prototypes and low volume production. Tethon 3D materials are compatible with both desktop and industrial-scale 3D printing technologies.“
DS: What’s in store for the future of ceramics AM? Which will be the most common applications and how large can the market become?
KL: “I am optimistic about the future growth of ceramic in AM, due to its desirable physical qualities. Ceramics are used extensively in nearly every consumer gadget, many automotive and aerospace components, medical devices, and other products that benefit our quality of life every day. Additive manufacturing will likely only replace a small percentage of the ceramics.“
“I should add – Karen Linder concludes – that some of these novel materials we are developing are exclusive projects with our industrial partners that currently have no plans for commercialization. A fascinating area of future growth is “metallization” of ceramic 3D prints. This is an innovative way to create parts that are lighter weight and potentially stronger than would be either pure metal or pure ceramic. One way of metallizing the ceramic is by printing with ceramic (such as Porcelite or Vitrolite) and applying a metal plate coating to the fully cured and sintered 3D print. We are also excited about the market opportunity for a new method of investment casting 3D printing that we have developed. Currently, there are castable resins that are used to fabricate objects from which a mold is made for casting. A new material, which we call Castalite, will be available soon, to directly 3D print the investment casting mold. The material has unique properties that eliminate steps in the traditional investment casting method. There are numerous applications in the production of custom metal parts and jewelry.“