3D Printing to Revolutionize the Chemical Supply Chain
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3D Printing to Revolutionize the Chemical Supply Chain

Rachel Gordon, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx
Rachel Gordon, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx

Rachel Gordon, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx

The massive growth in the use and applications of 3D Printers is driving growth in the market for 3D Printing materials. 3D Printing is changing the way we manufacture, disrupting the whole chemical supply chain. New ways of formulating and distributing materials is opening the market for new players.

Since the 1980s, when 3D Printing was first commercialised, it has grown reasonably slowly, being adopted mostly for small scale prototyping. The market for chemical supply remained small. In 2009, Stratasys’ key patent expired, the market place became flooded with cheap thermoplastic extruders, and then interest exploded.

This new interest inspired developments in many technologies to 3D print a wider variety of materials. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages of printing in different materials. Different materials have different applications. However, the properties and requirements of 3D printed materials often differ from their traditionally manufactured analogue.

Gone are the days of 3D Printing being synonymous with Rapid Prototyping; the days of Additive Manufacturing are here. No longer is 3D Printing used only for one-off pieces and prototypes, but for final part production of items. It allows reduced and simplified assembly, quicker design iterations, greater design freedom, mass customisation and minimal material wastage. All these reasons are leading to increased adoption in many market sectors. The seven key 3D Printing Materials have a total market of $800 million which is expected to grow to over $8 billion by 2025.

It also allows manufacture in remote or hostile locations, which allows the military to produce spares or replacements in war theatres. But it also allows manufacture in many locations, to reduce shipping costs and difficulties. For example, sand moulds and cores for casting of large metal parts are fragile and so difficult to transport over long distances. 3D sand printers allow the moulds to be built where they are required. This reduction in shipping, by moving electronic designs rather than manufactured parts, could massively reduce emissions.

As 3D printers become cheaper, this attitude will become more commonplace. Eventually millions of items will be manufactured close to where they are needed, perhaps even in the home as they are required. Consumers can already pay to download a file to print out the object at home, or there are large communities who freely share and edit designs. This will revolutionise the chemical supply chain. Instead of formulated materials being delivered in huge quantities to factories which produce millions of items, they will be used on a much smaller scale by many more outlets.

“Gone are the days of 3D Printing being synonymous with Rapid Prototyping; the days of Additive Manufacturing are here”

3D Printing is already common in aerospace, orthopaedic, jewellery designing and dental sectors. In orthopaedics and dental, mass customisation allows a better fitting, superior product. In the jewellery sector, along with sculpture, toys, and ornaments, being able to cheaply print just one unique item is revolutionary, and will change the way we buy items. Consumers will want more input into the design, opening the market for cheap, easy-to-use CAD software and business opportunities for professional CAD designers to offer a service to help them design high-value bespoke items.

Adoption is fast-growing in education, military, architecture, medical research, and automotive sectors. Other end markets, such as off-planet manufacturing, are widely publicised but over-hyped. They represent great technological advances, and make great media articles, but will be niche for a long while yet.

The catalogue of materials which is possible to 3D print is constantly growing as technology is developing. Emerging materials include electrically conducting materials, silicone, biomaterials, carbon fibre, ceramics and graphene. These materials need to be specially developed and formulated for 3D Printing and represent new material markets, at all stages of the value chain. In some sectors, such as bio-printing, the materials’ requirements are largely unknown, and this represents massive opportunity for research and development.

The value chain for 3D printing materials is complicated because several major printer manufacturers engage in “vendor lock-in” in a way analogous to 2D printers, but cheaper 3D printers allow the purchase of free market materials. Industrial users tend to be “locked-in” to guarantee high quality materials, specifically formulated for their machine. Hobbyist users tend to buy cheap materials because final product quality and consistency is less important to them.

The growing market means there is a lot of space for new players. Acquisitions of small materials’ formulators by large printer manufacturers are common. Many multi-national corporations are diversifying into 3D Printing. The newly announced HP MultiJet Fusion claims much higher build speed, precision and object strength so could change end-user expectations of 3D Printing.

However, 3D Printing is not the only disruptive technology, which has the potential to dramatically change the market. Desktop thermoplastic recyclers, cheaper ways of producing metal powdersand competing prototyping technologies, are all poised to change the chemical supply market.

End-user requirements drive developments. Large industrial users require larger build volumes, increased build speed, greater precision, declarative CAD and movement away from layered structures which have anisotropic properties. Hobbyist users require cheaper printers and simpler CAD software.

This sort of insight is valuable to anyone in, or considering entering, any stage of the value chain for 3D printing materials from chemical suppliers to formulators to end-users, and anyone who supplies to the industry. 



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