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 $2 billion, the installed base and applications will expand, and technology will continue to mature, according to a report by IDTechEx,“3D Printing Composites 2021-2031: Technology and Market Analysis.” The report states that 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. In its report, 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.
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 as well as challenging but this can benefit from the mouldless, rapid prototyping, and automated approach that additive manufacturing enables. 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 organisation 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.
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 organosheets, there is much to be aware of to understand the role that 3D printing can play within this industry.
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. 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.
There is already a reasonable installed base in composite 3D printers, but obviously much smaller than their polymer counterparts and set to grow significantly. Existing polymer printers can often accommodate certain composite material, but typically at very low loading percentages and with several limitations. This market report focuses on those printers designed for FRP materials. This growing installed base will lead to notable revenues in follow-on sales for materials, software and services which will quickly overtake hardware sales.
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