What is ULTEM™ (PEI)?
PEI - Polyetherimide, is an amorphous amber-to-transparent thermoplastic that is considered to be one of the highest performance polymers in the world. Appeared for the first time 40 years ago, and was introduced for the first time in the 3D printing industry by leading 3D manufacturer Stratasys.
* ULTEM™ is the brand of SABIC, the world’s leading manufacturer of PEI.
ULTEM™ and 3D Printing
The material’s physical properties such as high heat resistance, solvent and flame resistance makes it favorable for producing strong and durable parts for advanced applications, especially in the Aerospace and Defense industries. It’s is cheaper than PEEK and there for offer an attractive alternative for advanced applications.
Operating temp. of over 200c
Low flammability and low levels of toxic emissions
The only 3D printing plastic certified material for the Aerospace industry
Challenging to print
Expensive compared to engineering plastics
Produces fumes (150c-200c)
Image Source: miniFactory, Finland
Comparing ULTEM™ 3D printers
High-Thermoplastics 3D Printer’s Manufacturers
The first company associated with ULTEM™ 3D printing is Stratasys however today there are more than several OEM’s that offer high-performance 3D printers capable of printing ULTEM™ among other high-performance materials. They offer more affordable systems, and while searching for such, keep in mind the following:
How many years the 3D printer OEM’s has experience with advanced materials.
How many active customer’s they have, and in which industries?
Does the manufacturers/their sales partners have enough knowledge and experience with training end-users to print advanced materials.
Are the printer’s specs suitable for printing high-performance materials such as – extruder max temperature, print bed temperature and heated chamber.
Which other high-thermoplastics materials their printers can print.
Evaluating 3D printed parts
After finding and examining the products of different vendors, now comes an important step of evaluating and comparing their technologies. Specs are great, but printed samples are the best way to dive deeper in your comparison process. Two possible steps:
Sample parts – examine parts that were printed by the OEM which can give a first glance on quality, accuracy, surface finish & cost per part.
Benchmark printing – more advanced step in which you print your own part that represent your required applications and parts geometry. The best would be to print the sample part of different technologies and then compare the results.
These two steps could help you filter down less suitable technologies and focus on that ones that seems to present higher performance.
Important step that can give you another perspective from a user that already been printing advanced materials. Shading more light on the products itself, ease-of-use, the OEM/sales partner support, printing challenges, successes and failures with different applications – all good to set the right expectations.
The two critical elements are the price of the material and the 3D printer cost. The price of ULTEM™ filament can be in the range of 250-450 euro per 1 kg, and due to recent developments in the market, it is expected to go down below 200 euro per 1kg in the near future. The price of the printers can vary from 6,000 euro to 100K and above for industrial systems. From that perspective, productivity is also an element to consider and should affect your decision on which printer to eventually purchase.