Updated: Oct 27, 2020
What makes composite materials unique?
Composites today are used to produced high-end automotive components, sporting equipment, and aircraft parts. Products that are highly customized and not usually mass produced. The ultimate goal of the forms working on additive manufacturing of composites is to make the production of composite parts scalable, without sacrificing materials properties. The transition towards automated, mass produced composite parts will be a gradual one. Additive manufacturing is s core element in this transition, but it is not the only one: new technologies are emerging that seamlessly combine AM processes within automated end-to-end workflows in order to ensure the highest level of performance. This is inextricably connected to use of continuous fibers.
However, composites AM is not just about top part performance but also about improving the performance of polymer 3D printed parts, to make parts stronger, lighter and larger. This is where additive manufacturing of chopped fiber composites its rapid growing niche. 3D printing and chopped fibers is less complex than 3D printing with continuous fibers and is now rapidly emerging as a viable commercial opportunity for the short and medium term.
The turning point of the composites AM market
In the period between 2012-2016, as the filaments extrusion hardware market opened up beyond the original patent holder (Stratasys), a large number of polymer material and filaments manufacturers emerged and began integrating carbon and glass fibers into 3D printable filaments for open systems. This caused the first real expansion of the composites 3D printing market, as materials and hardware costs, combined with improved part properties, enabled this process to be used on tools and final parts production for short batches.
Between 2014-2018, a new generation of large-format 3D printing technologies, enabled by composite chopped-fiber reinforced polymer material pallets, was introduced, led by the BAAM systems from Cincinnati Inc. These technologies showed the possibility of 3D printing large tools, for example to produce aircraft wings or turbine blades for wind energy generation, and to directly produce large parts without tools.
In 2020, a new paradigm, started by firms established as early as 2013, is coming to fruition: the use of 3D printing technologies for the production of continues fiber composite parts. This, combined with the continues evolution and expansion of all previously introduced composite 3D printing processes and applications, will enable the adoption of composite 3D printing as AM technology evolves into a truly viable solution for composite parts mass production.
Ten-year market forecast for composites AM
The overall composites AM market is expected to grow into a $10.6 billion yearly revenue, opportunity by the end of this decade. This figure includes composites AM hardware revenue of $-billion, composites AM materials revenue of $-billion, as well as $-billion (just over-%) in application related revenue. This forecast takes into consideration a number of assumptions and other factors affecting this market growth, including expected inflection points as certain technologies are expected to reach maturity, along with machine depreciation, higher productivity rates for final parts production, and a significant reduction in material costs due to large materials consumption.
As expected, applications are going to drive the composites AM market forward, experiencing the highest significant sub-segment CAGR, with 40% between 2020-2030. Revenue from printed parts (including prototypes, tools and end-use parts), are expected to grow from $-million in 2020 (about-% of the overall market) to $-billion by the end of the forecast period (nearly-% of the composites AM sector’s overall yearly revenues). With hardware and materials growing at-% and -% CAGR, the entire sector is expected to experience a very high -% CAGR.
Key adoptions verticals and applications for composites AM
Composites in AM are ideal for functional prototyping and tools (used in mass produce final parts) over visual and aesthetic prototypes (such as product and architectural models), although chopped glass fiber/glass beads in reinforced polymer filaments and powders can be used to improve surface quality. These applications are considered to be ideal for the current limited speed and low productivity of most composites AM technologies. However, in the long term, end-use parts are expected to be the key applications driving growth.
In terms of vertical segments, AM composites have multiple uses in aerospace, albeit mostly for mold and tool making. The automotive segment is also considered one of the primary current adoption verticals for composites both for current prototyping and tooling technologies and new/upcoming mass production systems.