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Covestro makes additive manufacturing fit for serial production
3D printing in a new dimension
3D printing is ready to revolutionize the world of industrial manufacturing – but only if the right raw materials are available. As a leading supplier of high-tech polymers, Covestro advances the technology’s leap from niche applications such as rapid prototyping towards a wider use in series production. Our innovative print materials offer manufacturers and designers in various industries unmatched freedom regarding the functionality, complexity, and design of a given end product.
Recognizing the advantages of 3D printing, the industry now views the technology as a major opportunity for efficient mass production of complex or individualized parts.
Roland Wagner, Technical Manager Resins Additive Manufacturing at Covestro 

Covestro creates more possibilities for 3D printing

Addressing current consumer trends

Without a doubt, 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – is perfectly suited to current consumer trends and demands. This fascinating technology makes it possible to design three-dimensional components on a computer and to then produce them layer by layer with a 3D printer using one of the various printing techniques available. This makes additive manufacturing a great solution for the quick development and production of highly complex, individualized parts.

Many industries have long since recognized the advantages of 3D printing processes and seek to integrate the technology into their value chains. One application that has already been well-established is rapid prototyping – the computer-aided, cost-effective production of models and prototypes. Rapid prototyping is by no means the end of the road though. Companies around the world are now looking to use 3D printing in large-scale serial production – a step that would change the world of industrial manufacturing as we know it.

Challenges to overcome

Until recently, however, this fundamental next step into series production was held up due to factors such as poor efficiency and the lack of suitable print materials. The latter can be regarded as the technology’s bottleneck at the moment: while some 3,000 materials are available for established mass production technologies, just around 30 are suitable for 3D printing. And only one of those 30 – polyamide – is already used to a considerable degree in series production. Due to this lack of variety, it is not always possible to fine-tune the physical and aesthetic properties of the end product so that they exactly match the desired result.

A material toolbox to unleash the power of 3D printing

The core high-performance material types of Covestro – polyurethane and polycarbonate – are both being used in 3D printing. This enables Covestro to act as a forerunner in tapping into the technology’s full potential across industries worldwide. We develop novel print materials that support a multitude of desired properties such as hardness, heat resistance, transparency, and flexibility.

When used in common 3D printing methods, they show decisive advantages over conventional materials: they cut mold costs, reduce development times, and offer manufacturers considerable design freedom. In this way, our polyurethane chemistry offers our customers and partners a flexible toolbox for 3D print materials. Polyurethane is very versatile in particular and can be adapted to achieve many desired properties. Our current developments focus on further design optimization, greater functionality, and, first and foremost, expansion into industrial mass production. For this purpose, Covestro operates special laboratories for 3D printing in Pittsburgh, Shanghai, and at our company headquarters in Leverkusen. Together with our partners we use these labs to develop material solutions and test them under authentic conditions.

Find an overview of some of the most important additive manufacturing techniques – and our contributions to them – here!

How Covestro is improving diverse 3D printing techniques

Versatile offer for Fused Filament Fabrication

In Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), a plastic filament is liquefied by heating to deposit lines and dots onto a surface, where they harden when cooled. By repeating this process numerous times, a three-dimensional solid object is created layer by layer. 

Covestro offers a broad choice of materials that are ideal for the FFF process – from flexible and rigid thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) to high-strength polycarbonate (PC). Our TPUs are highly suitable for additive manufacturing. Their characteristic melting and hardening behavior results in a permanent bonding between the applied layers, while the outstanding abrasion resistance and elasticity of TPU are maintained. Polycarbonate is a great material choice for the FFF process, as it offers high impact strength, excellent thermal stability, and inherent flame retardancy. Covestro initiatives include working in a partnership with Chinese filament manufacturer Polymaker, who has launched innovative polycarbonate-based materials for the FFF method on the market on the basis of Covestro PC.

First fully flexible materials for Selective Laser Sintering

Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) is an additive manufacturing technology which creates a three-dimensional part one layer at a time using fine powder as the print medium. This powder is sintered or melted with either a laser or an electron beam as the heat source to fuse the material powder together.

Covestro offers TPU powders, which are the first flexible materials available for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), one of the commonly used printing techniques in the Powder Bed Fusion process. SLS uses a laser beam to sinter plastic powder.

Our TPU has significant advantages over materials commonly used in SLS, which tend to be less tough and elastic. By way of example, TPU powders are already used in the industrial production of individualized high-performance soles for shoes.

Next generation resins for industrial additive manufacturing

Covestro has been developing systems for stereolithography (SLA) and the digital light process (DLP). When it comes to toughness, flexibility, and chemical and weathering resistance, these PU-based resins offer the unique opportunity to customize performance due to the broad range of isocyanates and polyols from Covestro.

The footwear industry demonstrates today what 3-D printing can achieve for other industries in the future – and what Covestro can contribute.
Levent Akbas, Business Development Manager Additive Manufacturing at Covestro

Covestro and partners push boundaries in footwear

Stepping up the 3D printing game for consumers

Many industries can benefit from the current advances in 3D printing technology. One area that impressively demonstrates the technology’s potential is footwear that uses advanced technology. Together with various partners, Covestro has been able to realize great projects in this field – from high-tech sneakers to orthopedic shoes.

A huge step toward automated shoe production

The novel technology of shoe bonding is a huge step towards fully automated shoe production. Nowadays, many shoe manufacturing processes, such as gluing the outsole to the shaft, are still done manually. Shoemakers and brand owners are very interested in switching to automated processes, as automatization ensures a consistently high shoe quality. As a key provider of high-quality polymers for both the footwear and textile industry, we help our partners to implement an innovative concept that allows the outsole to be automatically and efficiently connected to the shoe shaft. An essential component of this concept is an adhesive filament as a novel adhesive raw material.

The new concept enables future shoe stores to make selling and producing become one entity. This concept has been proven by the ATOM Lab, the research and innovation area of ​​shoe manufacturer and Covestro partner ATOM, and was presented at the Simac Tanning Tech trade fair in Milan. A 3D scanner scans the customer’s feet. Based on the scan, a suitable shoe is configured. With a single click, the personalized shoe is made right in front of the customer. The special feature, which was made possible by Covestro, is the gluing process of the shoe sole and the upper. A strand of a meltable adhesive, an adhesive filament, is melted for a short time using the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) process. A 3D printer on a robot arm now applies this melt according to the configured print image. While the two parts are glued and pressed together, the adhesive cools down. It crystallizes and creates a firm and permanent adhesive bond. The adhesive has a long open time and high initial tack like polyurethane dispersions.

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