Another day and another chemical company enters the 3D printing market, this time American giant 3M.
3M is one of the largest chemical companies in the world, having revenues of almost US$33B last year. They produce over 60,000 products and no doubt have one of the largest catalogs of chemical recipes on the planet.
And now they’re deploying it into our industry by 3D printing PTFE.
What is PTFE?
Where will they start? It turns out they are 3D printing Polytetrafluoroethylene, or “PTFE”. It’s also well known under the brand name “Teflon”. Everyone has seen this material; it’s a pure white, silky smooth substance with a waxy texture that most often is used in high temperature applications.
3D Printing PTFE
That’s because it has a glass transition temperature of 115C, making it ideal for use in frying pan coatings, nuclear storage and of course, as those white tubes inside 3D printer hot ends that provide a smooth path for low temperature filaments. It’s also used in filament tubes on many 3D printers.
But its high temperature resistance makes it rather difficult to 3D print, and it has a number of other properties that have prevented successful attempts at 3D printing the highly useful material.
Now 3M appears to have solved the problem and can reliably 3D print complex objects in PTFE. At top you can see a sample PTFE benchmark 3D print with a number of different challenging geometries. The part is totally smooth and apparently without layer lines. And it’s waxy to touch, just like PTFE should be.
3M PTFE Print Service
However, there is something to note: their secret process for 3D printing PTFE will only be available as a service and will likely never be sold as a machine or material separately.
There’s an important reason for this. It seems their PTFE 3D printing process is incredibly complex. The initial print takes place within an aquagel and has the consistency of well-cooked spaghetti. Post processing requires an amazing 6-12 steps, depending on how you count them. And this processing takes an entire week to complete!
During the post processing, a solvent burns out non-PTFE materials, and there is a sintering step too. 3M explains that the part could shrink from 20-50% depending on various factors.
However, in spite of this torturous post processing week, 3M is able to achieve 0.2mm accuracy for small features and 0.8mm accuracy for the overall print.
3M PTFE Print Service Availability
Their service is not yet available to the public, but is currently delivering experimental sales only. However, they expect to commercialize the process next year sometime. Further, they are also looking at doing something similar with PFA material (Perfluoroalkoxy alkanes), which is a kind of super-PTFE with even more powerful properties. They’re also looking at developing a PTFE powder in the future.
And after that? Evidently they are busily looking through their vast catalog of formulations for applicability to 3D printing. But it’s not just about the material; they are also considering under what business model they could deploy a formation.
Expect some very powerful new 3D printing materials to emerge from 3M over the next few years.