3D printing of fibre-reinforced polymers is rapidly approaching a commercial tipping point. This is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and impactful areas of 3D printing; over the next decade the market will grow to USD 2 billion, the installed base and applications will expand, and technology will continue to mature. This growth will not be without challenges; there are barriers to adoption to be overcome in multiple sectors, supply chains & digital infrastructures to be established, and an inevitable consolidation in the number of manufacturers.
The reason for the interest in this sector is easily apparent. 3D printing of polymer materials can have mechanical limitations that benefit from fibre reinforcement (or other functionalities), and composite manufacturing is known to be costly, and challenging this can benefit from the mouldless, rapid prototyping, and automated approach that additive manufacturing enables.
In their latest market report “3D Printing Composites 2021-2031: Technology and Market Analysis”, IDTechEx provides a comprehensive view of the 3D printing market for composite material including granular 10-year forecasts, material and printer benchmarking studies, application case studies, and interview-based company profiles.
There are numerous approaches to 3D printing composite material, with key considerations around the material (continuous fibre vs chopped fibres; thermoplastic vs thermoset) and the printer properties that make it appropriate for an industrial organization or a desktop device for prosumers or hobbyists. The most mature technology is 3D printing of thermoplastic composites using variations on fused filament fabrication (FFF). There are numerous emerging technology developments, from those achieving chopped fibre alignments in a photopolymer, high-throughput, multi-axis printers, larger scales, increasing the fibre content, thermoset dispensing, multi-material capabilities, and more. These developments are detailed throughout the market report.
This must also be compared against the incumbent technology and broader developments taking place in the automated manufacturing of composite materials. From AFP & ATL processes through to pick-and-place robots for organo-sheets, there is much to be aware of to understand the role that 3D printing can play within this industry.
Polymer composites overview. Source: IDTechEx report “3D Printing Composites 2021-2031: Technology and Market Analysis“
Central to this industry are the materials that are used. These materials are what dictates the part properties and printer requirements; they are also a key part of the competitive business models that are being employed. This market report provides a comprehensive assessment of the material providers and a price and properties benchmarking study. Continuous fibre composites are for many the end goal, with significant value, but there is a large opportunity in their short counterparts and a range of thermoplastics and thermoset resins being deployed. Numerous strategic partnerships are being established between emerging hardware manufacturers and major chemical companies as well as activity between these chemical companies, the most notable being the acquisition of Owens Corning business line by BASF in 2020. There are also companies directly entering this field launching filaments or other composite material; a prime example is Braskem’s entry into this field with their recycled carbon fibre reinforced PP.
What are the latest developments?
There are countless news stories over the past few years with product launches, partnerships, and new companies. Perhaps the most significant surround the market leaders, Markforged; since late 2020 the company has announced new materials, printers, and distribution partners, they are planning to go public which will release considerable funds to facilitate growth and M&A activity, and are subject of a lawsuit filed by Continuous Composites for patent infringement. The company has a well-documented complex history with Desktop Metal who launched its first entry into 3D printing composites in late 2019 with its Fibre product.