While still in its infancy, the adoption of additive manufacturing in technical ceramics has experienced a surge.
The way humans manufacture goods has changed significantly throughout history. Since the dawn of industrial society over 200 years ago, three industrial revolutions have taken man from animal power to mechanized production, mass production and into the digital age. Now, a fourth technological revolution is creating a further shift in the way we think about manufacturing. As we progress from a society of mass production to mass customization, additive manufacturing (AM) technology is contributing greatly to this trend.
Additive manufacturing (i.e., the process of putting thin layers of material on top of one another) has been trailblazing since its inception a few decades ago. Continually improving in quality, build size, material choice and applications, plastic and metal 3D printing have been slashing time-to-market and production costs in the automotive, aerospace, healthcare, dental, electronics, and machinery industries, to name but a few, for years. The technology has evolved from predominantly producing prototypes to manufacturing end-use parts that improve products by reducing weight, production times, tooling costs or delivering complex geometries. While still in its infancy, the adoption of additive manufacturing in technical ceramics has experienced a surge following implementation by several innovative users for some promising applications.
Rising Market Potential
Ceramics additive manufacturing is a young specialty that emerged from the more mature plastics and metal AM sectors. This fresh discipline focuses on real parts for end user applications and is receiving growing levels of acceptance from leading manufacturers. It also shows impressive potential, as evidenced by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.4% from 2015 to 2017.1 Experts predict that the global market for 3D printing of technical ceramics will rise from $174 million in 2017 to $544 million in 20221 and could be worth $3.1 billion by 2027.2
Technical ceramics AM will complement and, in certain cases, replace traditional manufacturing methods such as ceramic injection molding (CIM), hot isostatic pressing (HIP) and various casting methods, especially when facing short to medium runs of complex parts. This will provide huge time and cost savings while retaining part performance. In addition, ceramic additive manufacturing will enable a whole new range of applications and uses that were not possible before, such as conformal cooling channels in mold inserts, personalized implants and other medical supporting devices, and the creation of complex geometries that will reduce part weight while optimizing strength.
Additive Manufacturing Today
Technical ceramics, also known as engineering, industrial or advanced ceramics, are used in a vast number of industries today due to their extraordinary properties such as high temperature resistance, toughness, strength, chemical resistance, abrasion resistance, and more. For certain applications, ceramics surpass metal capabilities and are in growing demand in leading industries.
Technical ceramic parts are produced using several traditional methods, including injection molding, HIP, extrusion, casting and more. All require tools that can be expensive, particularly when calculating cost per part for short runs. Additive manufacturing has proven to be a valuable replacement of traditional manufacturing methods by eliminating the tooling process, resulting in significant time and cost savings.
As an additive process, huge benefits are gained in design freedom. In a subtractive manufacturing process, access to internal cavities of parts can be restricted, limiting tool paths. Conversely, with additive manufacturing, complex geometries are as easy to produce as simple parts. In addition, the technology allows multiple parts to be built simultaneously on the same build tray. This could include different design iterations, different size options, parts for an assembly, or a repeated control part for functional testing—all available within a matter of hours with just an additive manufacturing system and a digital file.
Ceramic AM parts achieve physical properties equal to traditionally made parts. However, geometric properties can change according to the manufacturing technology used and may require finishing, potentially adding time and cost to the process. New jetting technology* has been developed that enables the production of parts with excellent shape and dimensional tolerance, resulting in less required machining and further reducing costs and timescales.
*NanoParticle Jetting (NPJ) technology, incorporated in the Carmel 1400 and the Carmel 700 systems, all developed by XJet.
Jetting with Nanomaterials
The new jetting technology addresses design and production barriers that have been seen previously in ceramic AM with several key features: liquid dispersion, stochastic nanoparticles and a separate material for support structures. The fundamental concept of the technology is based on the use of liquid dispersion. A liquid suspension containing nanoparticles of ceramic or metal material is dispersed using inkjet printheads. The accuracy of inkjet printheads, plus the use of ultrafine layers, creates sharp Z resolution and enables near-net-shape parts.
The system’s nanoparticles are stochastic, meaning they are of different shapes and sizes, and are randomly distributed within the liquid suspension. Following dispersion, the smaller particles fill spaces between the larger particles, resulting in tight packing of the particles. This ideal packing results not only in physical property advantages like high density, but also in geometric advantages such as the capability to form thin walls, sharp edges, smooth surfaces, and other fine details.
Unlike typical ceramic AM technologies that use the same material for both the build and the support structures, this system uses a different material for support. The ability to jet more than one material simultaneously enables these systems to use a separate proprietary material to provide support during the build, which is soluble and easily disintegrates from the manufactured part afterward. Cavities and fine details can be created with no concern that they will be harmed in the support-removal process, as might be the case with powder-based technologies.
The technology also ensures the whole process offers operational advantages, as it is productive, efficient, safe and simple to use. The system enables the production of final parts while facilitating the rapid design and testing of parts. Production can commence immediately once a part has been digitally designed, enabling manufacturers to further accelerate production development cycles.
The potential of AM in technical ceramics is clearly vast. The readiness of the technology, the size of the potential market, the variety of applications and the advantages afforded to users all point to a transformation in the industry. The healthcare, energy and automotive industries that adopted plastic and metal additive manufacturing are now starting an exciting journey into technical ceramics.
Additive manufacturing technology for ceramics is expected to gain full acceptance as a valid, needed and even preferred manufacturing method. In terms of potential, ceramic additive manufacturing seems to be heading for a brilliant future.