Ceramic 3D printing has a lot to offer applications from aerospace and biomedical to industry, but adoption can be a sticking point.
Even as technological and materials capabilities continue to widen across additive manufacturing, potential users remain hesitant. Doubt can be a powerful barrier to adoption, as seemingly-unproven new processes are a risk. And risk, generally, isn’t something a highly technical organization is keen to take on.
Adoption, then, tends to be a long journey. Even as 3D printing has seen rising attention this year due to the technology’s applications in combating disruptions — to both life and business — resulting from the pandemic, that attention remains uneven. Medical 3D printing, for example, has seen a rise in producing relatively easy-to-produce goods like face shields. There’s been some, but significantly less, use of the technology to make patient-contact equipment. Plastic and metal 3D printing continue to make up a significant majority of additive manufacturing on the market today.
But 3D printing in more materials can be a major benefit. And the efforts to do so do best when led by experts with a thorough understanding of what they’re doing — and how their customers can learn to do it, too.
3DCeram Ceramic 3D Printing
We’ve seen this tactic find success in more established 3D printing technologies. More recently, ceramic 3D printing has been following the path toward adoption, and that pathway is paved with expertise. France-based 3DCeram is based in Limoges, which Kareen Malsallez, Marketing Manager, describes as “the cradle of ceramics.”
“We are a small French company, with shareholders in Sinto Group, a huge Japanese group in the foundry industry that wanted to invest in an innovative company like us in additive manufacturing,” Malsallez told me in a recent chat. “We are specifically dedicated to 3D printing technical ceramics — all, and only, ceramics.”
Early on, the company introduced its first ceramic 3D printer, the C900. Step by step, Malsallez noted, the company developed new equipment and new ceramic materials. They of course offer “alumina and zirconia and others important for applications in aerospace,” ensuring that mainstay ceramic users have access to the mainstay ceramics. As materials development continued, the hardware did too and the range now also includes “the biggest platform to 3D print ceramics” with the C3600 Ultimate system.
In build size order, the company’s range today includes:
- C100 Easy
- Develop & prototype then scale up on the C3600 Ultimate
- 100 x 100 x 150 mm
- C900 Flex
- For small series and prototyping
- 3 sizes of building platform : 100 x 300 mm, 200 x 300 mm and 300 x 300 mm
- C900 Hybrid
- Print in 2+ materials with different dispensing capabilities, from needle valve to micro dispensing system
- 300 x 300 x 100 mm
- C3600 Ultimate
- For mass production or big parts; scale up from C100 Easy
- 600 x 600 x 300 mm
“What we believe in is, thanks to metal additive manufacturing and polymer additive manufacturing, we are now ready to go in industry,” Malsallez continued. “That’s why we developed this very big 3D printer — also because of customers in aerospace asking for satellite mirrors, which have to be very big.”
While customers “are receptive” to the idea of ceramic 3D printing, Malsallez noted, there remain barriers. Among these is the simplest: how do you perform the workflow?
Many times, new adopters find themselves facing a dilemma that can basically be summarized as “Okay, I have a 3D printer on my shop floor. Now what?”
3DCeram is circumventing that entirely, as Malsallez explains:
“We don’t just sell the printer; it’s exactly the opposite. We are a process provider, so we get along with them, all along the process, to make them get to the point of maturity to master the process.
We train them on the printer to master the process and finalize their project. We have a technology transfer with our services, and we are with them all along, with our experts and engineers. The trainings go step-by-step, from software through to end-use part. This is the best way we’ve found to convince industry to have additive manufacturing in their process.”
This workflow, 3D-AIM, was created because of the company’s direct knowledge of the market and the customers they target. While seeing familiar materials piques interest, “they want to know if the technology is reliable,” Malsallez added.
“They have to be convinced, still, and see how their project can be run all along the process. So we are a process provider, more than just a manufacturer and seller of a printer,” she said. “This technology has to be really understood by the customer to make them understand and master the process.”
Success stories of this workflow have come out of the polymer and metal sides of 3D printing already. 3DCeram hopes to replicate such successes in technical ceramics.
“At every step, we look if we have to carry on, if it’s possible or not possible. Sometimes people think with additive manufacturing anything is possible and that’s not really true, because of the shape, the material, the cost. Everything is potentially possible, but in the industrial way of thinking that’s not always the case. So we developed this service to stand by the customer from the first idea to the final end-use part,” Malsallez said.
3D-AIM, as 3DCeram describes it, entails three major steps:
- The analysis of feasibility with the customer’s requirements.
- The definition of a risk analysis and a de-risking plan.
- The risk mitigation of the application in our 3D Printing process
The end-to-end additive manufacturing workflow essentially involves CAD design, actual 3D printing, and post-processing. For technical ceramics, firing the 3D printed part “has a lot of impact on the end-use part,” Malsallez noted. Simply expecting a 3D printed part to perform like a standard one will not yield the same results. 3DCeram uses an SLA process, which requires cleaning. Each step “has to really be mastered” to get the best results — and so going through step-by-step with the team that developed the process ensures a strong base in building up one’s own mastery.
“3D-AIM is customized support for aerospace companies that are willing to switch to additive manufacturing for their future projects,” 3DCeram explains.
“Overall, 3D-AIM is a global approach to manage the design and the production phases and then the technology transfer to the customer.”
3DCeram Virtual Showroom
While training, demonstrations, and overall technology introductions are often done at trade shows and on-site in Limoges, obviously in 2020 that’s not possible.
3DCeram launched a virtual showroom, seen above, “to help people have a picture of the kind of people we are, what we offer, and the services,” Malsallez said. “Everyone is still trying to connect.”