• Expert Article

    3D Printing With Polymers
    – Much More Than Rapid Prototyping

Additive manufacturing using polymer materials is becoming increasingly popular in serial production. A crucial factor driving this trend is the ability to repeatable produce high-quality components, although that’s not the case of every AM process. You have to use the technology the right way.

Market demand for industrial 3D printing has grown significantly in recent years. Originally, this technology was mainly used to create demo and functional prototypes, and it significantly accelerated product development for many companies. We have come a long way with additive manufacturing (AM), now enabling companies to produce series of components and end parts. One key reason is the robust AM build process that is capable of producing components of exceptionally high quality – repeatedly and reliably. In addition, the ever faster build process and the growing automation of upstream and downstream processes are increasing productivity and reducing costs per part.

The Right Process for the Right Application

We have seen a variety of AM technologies emerge for different applications. So when it comes to serial production we need to differentiate as not every 3D printing technology is equally suited. For example, related to the printer itself, FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) is a low-cost but relatively slow manufacturing process that is more appropriate for applications with typically lesser component requirements. In comparison, powder bed methods are best suited for series applications with regard to costs per part, speed, and reproducibility. The leading powder-bed method is laser sintering, a technology for example offered by EOS. A pioneer in this field with almost 30 years of expertise as a company, EOS has made a significant contribution to its development.

The fascinating market for series applications is therefore based on powder-bed technology including metal materials and polymers alike. Manufacturing service providers such as the German company Hasenauer & Hesser have already manufactured thousands of serial parts from polymers using AM technology. The reason is quite simple: why would you only use AM for prototyping when you can produce manufactured parts of such high quality?

From Sneakers to Spare Parts – a Single Technology for a Broad Range of Industries

Generally speaking, additive manufacturing can be beneficial to any industry, but it will always depend on identifying the right application. Parts with a high degree of design complexity and a low weight-to-volume ratio – for example the combination of lightweight construction and complex geometries – are ideally suited to be manufactured additively. Some industries recognized these advantages early on, such as the aerospace and the medical sectors. Plus medica OT, for example, combines traditional methods of orthopedic technology with the possibilities of industrial 3D printing and offers patient-specific polymer orthoses made using AM technology. The approach has been so successful that the global player Ottobock acquired a majority stake in the company in May 2018. But AM is also used for products in the lifestyle sector from tailor-made glasses, where the frame and lenses can be tailored to a person’s features to sneakers with 3D-printed soles. The US sporting goods manufacturer Under Armour, for instance, has entered into a strategic partnership with EOS in the field of footwear.

These examples illustrate two further advantages of the technology. First, the shorter lead time: where it used to take months or years to get from the initial idea to the series product, we can now do so in a matter of weeks. The other major advantage is the ability to customize products. With industrial 3D printing, it makes no difference if you manufacture 30 identical or individual parts in a single build process. This is especially relevant as the individualization of mass-produced goods has become a growing market. For example, MINI now offers customized cockpit facia and blinker inlays which the customers can configure online and integrate to personalize their cars. Not only is this beneficial for the consumer, but it also proves that EOS 3D printing systems meet the strict production regulations set out by automobile manufacturers in terms of reproducible part quality, functionality, and safety.

AM also can be beneficial for the supply chain, particularly when it comes to mobility. In this area, a secure, long-term source of spare parts is of the essence. At the same time, the majority of spare parts costs result from logistics and supply chain costs. Additive manufacturing enables the rapid production of small batches of spare parts on demand, thus eliminating tool costs, reducing storage costs, and limiting the amount of spare parts produced to what is strictly needed. As an example, Deutsche Bahn ICE trains now feature 3D printed thin-walled fluorescent tube fixtures for the onboard information displays. This allows Deutsche Bahn to produce new spare parts in small numbers, on demand.

Disruption Offers a Great Opportunity

As you can see, industrial 3D printing comes in where conventional manufacturing reaches its limits. It enables a design-driven manufacturing process – where design determines production and not the other way around. AM requires a different mindset and this may seem intimidating to some, but this is exactly where the potential for disruption lies. Don’t shy away from the technology but start with less functionally critical components in order to experience the potential of the technology for your business. This way you can nurture confidence in additive manufacturing and initiate a process of rethinking within your company.

Even with a small investment in AM technology, it is possible to manufacture components of high quality and reliability. EOS, for example, offers the FORMIGA P 110 Velocis, a compact system ideal for entering the world of industrial 3D printing – from rapid prototyping applications to profitable, economical small-scale series production. Especially when combined with the range of consulting services that EOS offers, companies can build up knowledge quickly and experience to start manufacturing. If production capacities need to be expanded, automated manufacturing platforms such as the EOS P 500 make it possible to produce polymer components on an industrial scale, making companies fully ready for series production, both now and in the future.

Outlook: A Key to the Digital Factory

The industry is constantly changing, and production is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Industrial 3D printing will play a key role in the factory of the future, alongside other technologies such as sensors, robotics, or machine-to-machine-to-human communication. As part of an Industry 4.0 it will enable greater flexibility and agility for smart production and supply chains. This will result in an extremely agile factory which will be able to adapt to changing market requirements and fluctuations.

Although this may sound like science fiction, it is important for companies to embrace these disruptive technologies early on to stay ahead of their competition.


Expert Article: Polymer 3D Printing Serial Mannfacturing
Source: EOS
Industrial 3D printing with polymer
Source: EOS
Complex polymer component 3D-printed on an EOS system
Source: EOS
FORMIGA P 110 Velocis
Source: EOS


Claudia Rupp
Director Global Marketing