How 3D printing will energize the chemical industry

Dec. 18, 2016

The technology offers lower costs, improved efficiency and new market opportunities

3D printing is no longer new. Chuck Hull, the Thomas Edison of the 3D printing industry, introduced the first 3D printer nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, has been used to create everything from shoes to airplane parts and even food. Although issues such as durability and speed have kept 3D printing from entering mainstream manufacturing, the industry is making tremendous advancements.

The growing adoption of 3D printing by more markets is being driven by three primary developments. First, the cost of 3D printing is rapidly decreasing because of lower raw material costs, stronger competitive pressures and technological advancements. According to a recent report by IBISWorld, the price of 3D printers is expected to fall 6.4 percent in 2016 alone1.

Second, printing speeds are increasing. Last year, startup company Carbon3D printed a palm-sized geodesic sphere in a little more than 6 minutes, which is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing solutions. The company’s printing approach applies ultraviolet light and oxygen to resin in a technique called Continuous Liquid Interface Production to form solid objects out of liquid2. Traditional additive printing is getting faster as well.

Third, new 3D printers have the ability to accommodate a wider variety of materials. Aided by innovations within the chemical industry, a broad range of polymers, resins, plasticizers and other materials are being used to create new 3D products.

While predicting the long-term impact that 3D printing will have on the world is impossible, the technology will likely transform at least some aspects of how nearly every company in nearly every industry does business. In fact, the chemical industry already has implemented 3D applications in the fields of research and development (R&D) and manufacturing.

Developing innovative feedstock & processes

The chemical industry is highly focused on R&D. In 2014, $59 billion was invested in R&D to discover new ways to convert raw materials such as oil, natural gas and water into more than 70,000 different products3. 3D printing provides a vast opportunity for the chemical industry to develop innovative feedstock and corresponding revenue. While more than 3,000 materials are used in conventional component manufacturing, only about 30 are available for 3D printing. To put this into perspective, the market for chemical powder materials is predicted to be more than $630 million annually by 2020.

Plastics and resins as well as metal powders or ceramic materials are already in use or under evaluation for the printing of prototypes, parts of industry assets or semi-finished goods, in particular those that are complex to produce and only required in small batch sizes. Developing the right formulas to create these new materials is an area of constant innovation within the chemical field, which will likely produce even more materials in the future. Here are a few examples of recent innovations in new materials for 3D printing:

  • Covestro, a developer of polymer technology, is developing a range of filaments, powders and liquid resins for all common 3D printing methods. From flexible thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) to high-strength polycarbonate, the company’s products feature a variety of properties like toughness, heat resistance, transparency and flexibility that support a number of new applications. Covestro also offers TPU powders for selective laser sintering, in which a laser beam is used to sinter the material.
  • 3M, together with its subsidiary Dyneon, recently filed a patent for using fluorinated polymers in 3D printing. Many types of fluorinated polymers are available – including polytetrafluoroethylene, commonly known as Teflon, which often is used in seals and lining and tends to generate waste in production. The ability to print fluorinated polymers means they can be manufactured quickly and affordably.
  • Wacker is testing 3D printing with silicones. The process is similar to traditional 3D printing but uses a glass printing bed – a special silicone material with a high rate of viscosity and ultraviolet (UV) light. The printer lays a thin layer of tiny silicone drops on the glass printing bed. The silicone is vulcanized using the UV light, resulting in smooth silicone parts that are biocompatible, heat resistant and transparent.

The chemical industry is also in the driver seat when it comes to process development. About 20 different processes exist that have one common characteristic – layered deposition of printer feed. The final product could be generated from melting thermoplastic resins (for example, laser sinter technology or fused deposition modeling) or via (photo) chemical reaction such as stereolithography or multijet modeling. For both process types, the physical and chemical properties of feed materials are critical success factors for processing and for the quality of the finished product.

Laboratory equipment

Laboratory equipment used for chemical synthesis is expensive and often difficult to operate. Machinery and tools must be able to withstand multiple rounds of usage during the product development process. With 3D printing, some of the necessary equipment can be printed at an affordable cost within the lab. Examples of equipment already being created with 3D printing include custom-built laboratory containers that test chemical reaction and a multiangle light scattering instrument used to determine the molecular weight of polymers. Some researchers are also using 3D printers to create blocks with chambers used to mix ingredients into new compounds.

Manufacturing, maintenance & processes

In addition to printing equipment used in laboratories, some chemical manufacturers are using 3D printers for maintenance on process plant assets. For example, when an asset fails because of a damaged engine valve, the replacement part can be printed on site and installed in real time. Creating spare parts in house can significantly reduce inventory costs and increase efficiency because wait time for deliveries is eliminated. Chemical manufacturers also have started to print prototypes (for example, microreactors) to simulate manufacturing processes.

For companies that do not want to print the parts themselves, an on-demand manufacturing network is available that will print and deliver parts as needed. UPS has introduced a fully distributed manufacturing platform that connects many of its stores with 3D printers. When needed, UPS and its partners print customer-requested parts and deliver them.

While not all parts will be suitable for 3D printing and work still needs to be done in terms of durability and materials, the potential reduction in inventory costs is significant. In the U.S. alone, manufacturers and trade inventories for all industries were estimated at $1.8 trillion in August 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Reducing inventory by just 2 percent would be a $36 billion savings.

Commercial benefits

Across all industries, 3D printing promises to reduce costs across the supply chain. For example, the ability to print spare parts on demand can save money through improved asset uptime and more efficient workforce management. 3D printing also helps control costs with reduced waste and a smaller carbon footprint. In contrast to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing techniques in which raw material is removed, 3D printing is an additive process that uses only the amount of material that is needed. This can save significant amounts of raw materials. In the aerospace industry, for example, Airbus estimates 3D printing could reduce its raw material costs by up to 90 percent4.

From a manufacturing perspective, 3D printing can streamline processes, accelerate design cycles and add agility to operations. Printing prototypes on site speeds the R&D development cycle and shortens time to market. Researchers can make, test and finalize prototypes in days instead of weeks. Also, the ability to print parts or equipment on demand will eliminate expensive inventory holding costs and restocking order requirements and free up floor space for other purposes.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the primary benefit of 3D printing for the chemical industry is the market potential of developing innovative, proprietary formulations for printer feeds and owning the corresponding intellectual property.

Obstacles to adoption

As with most new technology introductions, barriers must be overcome for this potential to fully be realized. The most discussed but unresolved issue is intellectual property protection. Similar to the way digital music is shared, 3D printable digital blueprints could be shared illegally and/or unknowingly either within a company or by outside hackers.

In addition to digital files, users can print molds from a scanned object and use it to mass produce exact replicas that are protected under copyright, trademark and patent laws. The problem will continue to grow as companies move to an on-demand manufacturing network, requiring digital blueprints to be shared with independent fabricators. Gartner predicted that by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally5.

Regulatory issues are slowing the adoption of 3D printer applications. This is especially applicable in the medical and pharmaceutical industries but has potential impact in many markets. For example, globally regulating what individuals will create with access to the internet and a 3D chemical printer will be difficult. Also, as 3D printing drives small and customer-specific lot sizes, it will likely spur an explosion of proprietary bills of material and recipes, which will be hard to track and control under REACH or REACH-like regulations. Because this is a new frontier, many regulatory issues must be addressed.

In addition to legal and regulatory challenges, the industry has a long way to go in reliably reproducing high-quality products. Until 3D printing can match the speed and quality output requirements of conventional manufacturing processes, it will likely be reserved for prototypes or small-sized lots.

3D printing: a new frontier

While 3D printing has not reached the point of use for large-scale production or to consistently make custom products, ongoing innovations drive high demand. Gartner’s 3D printer market forecast estimates that shipments of industrial 3D printers will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 72.8 percent through 2019 – from almost $944.3 million to more than $14.6 billion. The number of 3D printers purchased each year is expected to increase to more than 5.6 million units in 2019, a CAGR of 121.9 percent6.

3D printing will initially help chemical companies increase profitability by lowering costs and improving operational efficiency. However, the industry-changing opportunity is the chance to develop new feeds and formulations. The most successful chemical companies of the future will be the ones with the vision to begin developing and implementing 3D printing solutions today.


Dr. Stefan Guertzgen has worked for seven years as the Chemicals Global Director for Industry Solution Marketing at SAP. He spent 11 years in the chemical Industry at Chemtura in various positions including R&D, global business development, sales and business process management, and sales and operations planning. Join him in conversation on Twitter: @SGgaw29c or @SAPIndustries.


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