3D Printing Adds A New Dimension To Process Equipment

Technique promises faster and cheaper parts production as well as more sophisticated designs

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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3D printing now boasts costs and technology that’s allowing it to make an impact on chemical industry equipment and operations. Stefan Guertzgen, global senior director industry solution marketing and communications for chemicals, SAP, Newtown Square, Pa., points to three primary developments that are driving the adoption of the approach, which also is called additive manufacturing.

First is overall cost, which rapidly is decreasing because of less expensive raw materials, stronger competitive pressures and advances in technology. Then, too, the speed of the printing processes has increased. “In 2016, Carbon3D printed a palm-size geodesic sphere in a little over six minutes, which is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing solutions,” Guertzgen notes. The third driver is the ability of new printers to accommodate a wider variety of materials.

The technology, which has been available for more than 30 years, now seems poised to realize its promise, he believes. “Early predictions were that 3D printers would be in every home by now, but widespread adoption of additive manufacturing had to wait for other areas to catch up, including materials science, engineering techniques, digital transformation in the supply chain and advances in the chemical industry. The future of 3D printing will be achievable when manufacturers put an increased focus on customer satisfaction, in addition to working with the chemical industry to invent innovative materials that satisfy unique customer requirements.”

Guertzgen cites two German companies — Covestro, Leverkusen, and Wacker, Munich — as examples of this in action.

Covestro is developing a range of filaments, powders and liquid resins aimed at the 3D printing market. Its flexible thermoplastic polyurethanes and high-strength polycarbonates are designed for the manufacture of products that need properties such as toughness, heat resistance, transparency and flexibility.

The company also is working on methods to use 3D printing in the manufacture of more-complex parts that require several different materials. Its first success in this regard came in August 2018 when it announced that it had used selective laser sintering, fused filament fabrication and digital light processing to make three separate parts that then were connected together to create a demonstration model of a 40-cm-long, 7-cm-wide shock absorber (Figure 1).

“This complex structure would not have been possible with conventional production processes,” explains Lukas Breuers, a marketing manager for 2D and 3D printing at Covestro. “Another new development is the combination of different materials with various, tailor-made properties. This has enabled us to significantly expand the possibilities of additive production and its areas of application,” he adds. More-complex pump parts and seals are among many equipment items that need the good heat/abrasion resistance and flexibility offered by such a manufacturing strategy.

Meanwhile, Wacker is expanding its ACEO 3D printing services for silicone rubber with the opening of a printing lab in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The ACEO process uses drop-on-demand technology to deposit single silicone voxels (the 3D equivalents of pixels) onto a building platform. Each layer then goes through a curing process activated by ultraviolet light. This results in highly functional parts that offer improved temperature resistance and other enhanced properties.

“In general, North America is the largest and most dynamic market for 3D printing. With our new lab, prospective partners will obtain local access to the compelling possibilities of 3D printing with liquid silicone rubber,” comments Bernd Pachaly, head of the ACEO 3D printing project at Ann Arbor.

The new lab, due to open this month, also offers design support, 3D printing training sessions and a webshop for secure file upload and ordering.

Challenges

3D printing, like most new technology introductions, faces several barriers to full realization of its potential, Guertzgen cautions.

“A much-discussed but unresolved issue is intellectual property protection. Similar to the way digital music is shared, 3D printable digital blueprints could be shared illegally or unknowingly either within a company or by outside hackers. In addition to digital files, users can print molds from a scanned object and use them to mass-produce exact replicas that are protected under copyright, trademark and patent laws. The problem will continue to grow as companies move to an on-demand manufacturing network, requiring digital blueprints to be shared with independent fabricators. For example, globally regulating what individuals will create with access to the Internet and a 3D chemical printer will be difficult,” he explains.

In terms of SAP’s own 3D implementation strategy, a crucial component is ensuring strong relationships with its chemical customers. This includes creating a seamless collaboration between suppliers, designers and manufacturers involved in the 3D printing supply chain (Figure 2). Here, the company offers cloud-based applications to assist customers in streamlining their supply chains. One example of this is SAP’s distributed manufacturing program; it enables the chemical and other industries to integrate additive manufacturing into their supply chains through a few simple steps.

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