Hobbyists and artists have utilized a wide variety of materials in their 3D printing experimentation, from ceramics to even sugar and sand. The tight control and consistency that 3D printing offers users has so far encouraged experimentation in numerous sectors. As 3D printing begins to disrupt commercial industries such as construction, a select few materials have emerged as reliable, flexible, and cost-effective.
3D printing has numerous uses at nearly every stage of the construction process. Among the earliest adopters of 3D printing tech relied on it for detailed, complex, and entirely three-dimensional prototype models that used most of the same materials the final product would. This “additive manufacturing” (AM) evolved to allow for onsite printing, slashing labor costs and safety concerns. These demonstrations have rapidly driven up the frequency of 3D printing applications in fields like healthcare and aircraft manufacturing as well as construction. So far, metals, plastics, and ceramics have come to dominate these emerging materials markets.
Plastics and polymers are among the most widely used materials for creating small prototypes to printing affordable housing in developing countries. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), Polylactic Acid (PLA), and the polyamides PA11/PA12 are the foremost polymers being pushed by European firms such as France’s Arkema SA and Germany’s Evonik AG. A specialized form of concrete that requires a supersize printer will set as it’s being printed and, due to its composite nature, is much more supportive than conventional materials.
An important aspect of this burgeoning market is less the type of material itself and more the form it takes. Powder-based AM calls for powder forms of metals like titanium as well as plastics like ABS and PLA. New patents for the creation of these powders are pending while manufacturers expand their capacity to keep up with growing global demand. New materials like thermoplastic filaments, resins that are photosensitive, and more are in development now, with a whole new set of applications likely to emerge.
Though the 3D printing artists of the world may not be the ones to build new homes, their experimental instincts have no doubt influenced manufacturers to follow suit. 3D printing remains a nascent technology with significant room for growth.
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