Research activities 2021

Research and development activities

Regional reports from experts on current state of R&D in AM

Companies and universities are closely linked in research and development activitities in the field of Additive Manufacturing. Resulting joint projects, partnerships and spin-offs accelerate the overall development and industrialization of the technology. Following reports describe the current state in the specific regions.

By Kitty Wang

2020 3D Printing R&D Market Report-Landscape of China

China’s 3D printing R&D investment in 2020 has not been affected by the epidemic but has maintained a high growth trend. In the future, more diversification and differentiation in the direction of research and development are expected. At present, the proportion of investment in equipment and materials is relatively large, and the proportion of investment in software research and development is rather small.

In general, the growth of the 3D printing industry is driven by research and development. From the perspective of 3D SCIENCE VALLEY, 3D printing’s ability to upgrade the manufacturing industry will be based on innovation as the “index”, and the depth and breadth of the application side will be the “base”, together realizing an exponential power to transform the manufacturing industry.

The R&D landscape in AM in China in 2020 was described by an investigation conducted by 3D SCIENCE VALLEY. A total of 1,603 companies, universities, and research institutes were considered.  32.1% of them invested in R&D of equipment, 48.4% in processes and applications, 17% in materials, and 0.39% in software.

According to 3D Science Valley’s market research, most companies have invested less than 10 million yuan (1.3 million EUR, Ed.) in AM R&D in 2020. Furthermore, the Chinese domestic R&D investment in Additive Manufacturing in 2020 shows a 30%-40% increase compared to 2019. In addition, R&D investment in the fields of composite materials, process control, and artificial intelligence has begun to show at an accelerated trend, which has diversified changes from the previous focus on equipment development. In the following are trends of some typical R&D achievements in the Chinese market:

Trend 1: PBF equipment is moving towards multi-laser and large size

Since 2016, company BLT began to develop equipment with a unidirectional forming size of 500 mm or more. BLT has successively introduced key technologies such as four beam scanning. The company has continued to cultivate intelligent software for process quality control. Since March 2020, BLT has successively introduced machines BLT-S450 and BLT-S600 with multiple R&D iterations and test runs measuring in the tens of thousands of hours. In 2020, BLT also established a South China application R&D center in Shenzhen to drive further adoption of their technology with local application support. EPLUS3D’s EP-M650 four-laser equipment successfully passed the molding test of IN718 material for high temperature parts. YN LASER has developed and manufactured super-large LB-PBF equipment with a build plate size of 1000 mm in diameter and a building height of 850 mm.

Trend 2: Diversified processing technology extended based on each player’s core strength

NANJING TITANIUM INTELLIGENT SYSTEM has developed a plasma generator with a plasma arc nozzle and three-dimensional printing equipment including a practical control system. A stable and controllable flow field is obtained outside of the nozzle and a wide material range is available. BEIJING NATIONAL INNOVATION INSTITUTE OF LIGHTWEIGHT has developed a continuous fiber Additive Manufacturing method with Z-direction reinforcement. Continuous fibers are introduced into the Z-direction of the composite material component to improve or enhance the interlayer performance of the formed composite material component, hence the internal fiber structure of the composite material is complicated and diversified. In terms of sand mold 3D printing, the KOCEL GROUP has developed a print head protection device, a print head cleaning method, and a 3D printer that can avoid secondary pollution and friction problems on the print head, which can greatly increase the life of the print head and reduce the overall cost of production.

Trend 3: Materials to be more diversified

Many Chinese domestic companies and universities are studying ceramic reinforced metal composite materials. Among them, the ceramic reinforced aluminum alloy powder jointly developed and produced by ANHUI XIANGBANG COMPOSITES and SHANGHAI JIAOTONG UNIVERSITY can improve powder fluidity, increase laser absorption rate, and refine grain structure. It is especially suitable for 3D printing and is suitable for large-scale production applications.

JIANGSU UNIVERSITY has developed a graphene ceramic composite material by using a combination of 3D printing technology and microwave pressure sintering. After sintering, alumina and silicon carbide form a nano-ceramic composite material. The prepared composite materials have good fracture toughness, electrical and thermal conductivity. This method greatly reduces production costs and has good economic benefits.

NORTHWESTERN POLYTECHNICAL UNIVERSITY has developed 3D printing alumina ceramics. A photocurable 3D printed polysiloxane ceramic precursor is introduced into the alumina powder material. The density of the ceramics after sintering can reach 99%.

LIAONING GUANDA NEW MATERIAL TECHNOLOGY developed ultra-low oxygen cobalt-based deformed superalloy powder GH5188. This powder can ensure the content of lanthanum. At the same time, the metal powder has the advantages of high sphericity, good fluidity, and narrow particle size distribution.

There are other companies that are active in the field of materials research and development, including ANHUI CNPC POWER, SICHUAN XINDA GROUP, XI’AN SINO-EURO MATERIALS TECHNOLOGIES.

Trend 4: Full chain process solutions and artificial intelligence

One of the major obstacles to the use of 3D printing in upgrading the manufacturing industry is that the current digital chain is too fragmented. HEYGEARS has developed in-depth development of the full-process orthodontic solution in 2020, integrating the full-chain production process of invisible aligners. The fully automated 3D printing process of processing, automatic production, and automatic cutting realizes automatic 24-hour continuous production.

I believe that in the field of additive manufacturing, any software-driven technology that does not use AI will sooner or later be replaced. AI is the core of all different levels of competitiveness.

The professional process simulation software AMProSim-DED for metal additive manufacturing Directed Energy Deposition process jointly developed by PERA ADDITIVE and ZHONGKE YUCHEN can simulate in detail the effect of the phase change process of the part partition, the printing path as well as the melting and cooling in the AM process. The software can predict the temperature, stress and deformation in the AM process, optimize the process parameters, so as to ensure the 3D printing quality and printing efficiency, and avoid the inefficient trial and error process. In addition, PERA ADDITIVES has also developed the APRO control system to realize the control of continuous automated production.

ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY has developed a machine learning-based method for predicting the thermal history of multilayer arc additive manufacturing processes. ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY uses an integrated learning model based on multiple base learners based on two-way long and short-term memory networks to fit the unit set activation sequence. The prediction accuracy is high, the prediction speed is fast, and the memory usage is small.

Trend 5: Incubating new technologies in universities becomes one of the innovation drivers

 SHENZHEN UPRISE 3D TECHNOLOGY a spin-of from CENTRAL SOUTH UNIVERSITY, is bringing a complete set of metal/ceramic indirect 3D printing solutions from printing materials, 3D printers, operating software to debinding and sintering furnaces to the market. Apart from that, its large-size independent dual-nozzle 3D printer realizes composite printing of two different materials (metal and metal, metal and ceramic, ceramic and ceramic).


Trend 6: Traditional manufacturers enter the 3D printing field

GUANGDONG YIZUMI developed their so called spaceA system – screw extrusion type Additive Manufacturing. As AM is going to enter to a new era of AM 2.0 (characterized by digital inventory, used for production), more and more cross-industry companies like YIZUMI will enter the 3D printing field and together drive the development.

Kitty Wang
Kitty Wang is the founder of 3D Science Valley. Majored in Mathematics in university and with many years of industry experience including work experiences with Sandvik, Chevron, and DMGMORI, Kitty has provided professional consulting services to Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization, multinational corporations and the industry market leaders in China. Kitty is the co-author of the book of <3D Printing and Automobile Industry Technology Development Report> in cooperation with the Chinese Society of Automotive Engineering, and also is co-author of the book of <3D Printing and Industrial Manufacturing> in cooperation with the Industrial Culture Development Center of the Ministry of Industry and Information.

By Frank Beckmann

Shift to short- to mid-term research initiatives

The year 2020 was marked by the Corona crisis and so was the 3D printing research landscape in Europe. The effects can already be foreseen in many areas, but the consequences of the innovative strength of companies will only be visible in the longer term.

In the course of the first wave in March 2020, many companies first had to analyze the pandemic-related effects on their business in the short term without being able to immediately develop a long-term strategy.  As a result, corporate expenses outside the core business were put on hold. Current and future research activities were re-evaluated, partially modified or even stopped completely. Nevertheless, some companies saw research as an opportunity to develop innovations and to position themselves effectively for the future and for a growing economy after the pandemic. Other sectors, such as aviation and shipbuilding, were severely affected by the crisis throughout the full year of 2020, thereby the primary focus was on keeping the company afloat. This could be seen, for example, in the German aerospace research grant program (LuFo), where various projects were stopped, adapted or not started. In general, there was no significant crisis-related cutback in public research funding, so it was mostly possible to prevent a reduction in personnel and thus preventing a loss of expertise at the research institutions.

In addition, the reluctance of industry to invest in bilateral, industry-funded research was even more evident than in the case of publicly funded projects. Here, there was a significant reduction in external R&D investment, and projects promising a short-term ROI were pursued in particular.

Substantively, the pandemic is shifting and sharpening the thematic focus of short- and medium-term research initiatives. In this context, 3D printing underpins a new importance as a central component of resilient value chains as well as for flexible manufacturing of medical devices. Short-term research calls such as the German “Fraunhofer vs. Corona Program” or the “Give a Breath Challenge” have been able to generate innovative medical device solutions through the use of 3D printing.

In addition to Corona-related factors, it is apparent that 3D printing research topics are shifting towards higher TRL levels and industrial manufacturing. I.e. instead of basic material and design questions, research topics on quality assurance, production-line integration, post-processing and the digitalization of design and process chain are in focus. This is also reflected in the current project funding calls, (such as German initiatives ProMat3D or Agent3D) that are coming to an end and are transferred into industrial practice. Despite the demand, there are no comparable 3D printing-focused funding calls. This can only be addressed by choosing 3D printing as a central technology in other funding calls on topics such as production-line integration, quality assurance, or Artificial Intelligence & Big Data. Furthermore, 3D printing is an enabler for lightweight construction. Innovative approaches regarding this can be considered, for example, in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy lightweight construction technology transfer program.

The successful European funding initiative Horizon 2020 will find a successor in 2021 with Horizon Europe. With a funding budget of € 95.5 billion instead of the previous € 75 billion over 7 years, the program has been strengthened and provides the framework for various calls and sub-programs. For example, cross-border AM research collaborations can be funded via the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). The previous Clean Sky program will also be replaced by the successor Clean Aviation within the framework of Horizon Europe and will provide a platform for AM-related research work for aviation.

With the withdrawal of the United Kingdom out of the European Union at the end of 2020, UK institutes are likely to lose access to EU funding in the future. Likewise, however, the EU and their industrial players will lose access to the expertise of the renowned institutes of the UK until agreements have been passed.

Overall, the current lack of 3D printing calls and a cautious investor landscape in Europe gives countries such as the USA and China the opportunity to catch up and lead the 3D printing technology. Furthermore, companies should take advantage of the excellent university and non-university research infrastructure and their expertise to establish close collaborations and work together on pre-competitive developments in 3D printing. Industry-funded bilateral or multilateral projects that are launched irrespective of specific project calls have proven to be more effective. This is an area where industry struggled in some cases even before the crisis, and this may be aggravated by the ongoing aftermath of the pandemic. A full in-house development strategy will not efficiently leverage all potential.

On the process side, the widely used Powder Bed Fusion processes continue to be of greatest importance in research and development. In addition, the technologies such as Direct Energy Deposition, Binder Jetting and Metal FDM are gaining more relevance and focus. Research institutes also continue to focus on multi-material topics, as this is seen as a particular strength of 3D printing.

By A. John Hart and Haden Quinlan

Metal Additive Manufacturing Research Trends in the United States

There is a vibrant ecosystem of metal AM research ranging from fundamental to applied topics. Though there remains persistent academic attention to new invention and process discovery, considerable focus has been shifted towards applied research subjects aimed at maturing the technology for commercial readiness.

Academic Clusters: A large fraction of AM research is concentrated around specialized research clusters. Several of the most prominent institutions are highlighted below:

  • Pennsylvania State University’s (PSU) Center for Innovative Materials Processing 3D (CIMP-3D) has a robust research and educational program with strong connections to federal agencies and the U.S. Department of Defense. Specializing in design for AM, PSU also offers a one-year Master of Science in “Additive Manufacturing and Design,” as well as other graduate certificates.
  • Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) NextManufacturing program boasts expertise specifically in metallurgy and materials design. CMU includes research programs which assess both L-PBF and DED AM processes, among others.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has several initiatives advancing the study of metal AM, with related faculty in Mechanical Engineering, Materials Science, Civil Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, and other fields. The Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies (APT) supports both research projects and educational programs, including MIT’s Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production online course, across the institute.
  • Virginia Tech’s “Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems” (DREAMS) laboratory has four thematic research thrusts, including design for AM, new materials, novel processes, and quality assurance. Examples of active projects through the DREAMS lab include manufacturing of copper components using binder jetting systems.
  • The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) is a Department of Energy designated user facility. The ORNL MDF both funds significant research conducted at partner sites, as well as their own internal research in the fields of advanced materials, control systems, and advanced modeling and characterization. In metal AM, MDF has significant activities in wire-based robotic AM, hybrid AM, binder jetting, and electron beam melting.
  • In addition, there exist a wealth of other academic institutions (e.g. the Colorado School of Mines “Alliance for the Development of Additive Processing Technologies” consortium) and public-private ventures (e.g. AmericaMakes or the ASTM Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence) which are respective hotbeds of technological development and workforce training initiatives. In the following section, we will describe several thematic trends in metal AM research which summarize the present approach of U.S. academia.

In-Situ Monitoring and Controls: Maturing metal AM processes will require organizations to collect process performance data in-situ (i.e., while the build is taking place). Thermal and optical imaging are used to collect and interpret process data and correlate specific process parameters to expected part properties and failure mechanisms. Examples include high-fidelity in-situ analysis of the L-PBF process by leveraging synchrotron X-ray imaging. Notable work in this space is led by Professor Tony Rollett (CMU) and Professor Tao Sun (University of Virginia), and reveals the dynamics of keyhole formation in L-PBF processes. This may enable a more rigorous prediction of process stability limits and defect mitigation strategies. At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), a complementary approach uses computational modeling to examine spatter generation and the role of laser energy transients on pore formation, enabling predictive scanning strategies to reduce defects. Other researchers are extending high-speed X-ray techniques to investigate DED processes, including work at Northwestern University, Texas A&M, and Cornell University.

For binder jetting, notable contributions include Professor Christopher Williams’ (Virginia Tech) laboratory’s assessment of feedstock particle size distribution and its influence on microstructure, mechanical characteristics, and shrinkage. At MIT, Professor Zachary Cordero’s laboratory is studying sintering deformation through the use of in-situ imaging techniques. Also from MIT, Professor John Hart’s laboratory is developing precision testbeds for process development, including binder jetting of novel ceramics and optimization of powder spreading.

Advanced Applications: AM is increasingly reaching a point of industrial readiness that justifies its exploration across more advanced application contexts. Several potential high-impact research programs which emphasize the use of AM for novel environments have been announced over the past year.

There is a major focus on AM for high-temperature alloys for use in aircraft and spacecraft, as well as next generation energy conversion technology. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)’s Ultrahigh Temperature Impervious Materials Advancing Turbine Efficiency (ULTIMATE) program focuses on material design, processing (including, but not limited to, AM), and characterization for oxidation-resistant refractory alloys.

MIT and the University of Massachusetts – Lowell received an award from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of AM for infrastructure construction and maintenance. The project’s six primary tasks include, among others, characterizing the feasibility of using DED AM techniques to enable cost- and schedule-efficient spot repair of corroded structural members.

Research led by Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering has quantified the potential clinical outcome improvement of the use of AM for the preparation of orthopaedic implants. Professor Ken Gall’s laboratory found that gyroidal lattice structures are capable of fully repairing femoral cortical bone defects in rodents once treated with specific recombinant proteins, resulting in torsional strength and stiffness superior to that of their intact femur control specimen.

Metal AM Entrepreneurship and Commercialization: Metal AM processes have enjoyed considerable translation from laboratory practice into viable commercial products. Across the metal AM process- and-value chain, existing entities (including those who have reached public markets, such as DESKTOP METAL and MARKFORGED) have demonstrated consistent growth. Relatively new entrants, such as DIGITAL ALLOYS’ “Joule Printing” process and XEROX’s ElemX molten metal jetting process, are finding increased application in research and development contexts which may buoy these technologies for further commercial deployment. Importantly, many start-ups – both new and old – have direct university roots.

Other Trends: Though these trends are not novel with respect to the past year, several other thematic elements bear mentioning. Standards and Educational Program Development remains a strong thrust of many public and professional organizations (e.g. AmericaMakes or the ASTM Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence) as well as university networks. Though the pace of new process invention has slowed, Materials and Process Discovery remains important work, especially with respect to the processing of copper alloys, superalloys, and tool steels. Metallurgy and Microstructural Engineering remains an important subject at the intersection of process physics and computational design, and is being spearheaded by work from faculty such as Professor Tresa Pollock (University of California at Santa Barbara) and Professor Suresh Babu (University of Tennessee). Finally, Workflow Automation in both hardware (e.g. support removal or hybrid AM-machining systems) and in software (e.g. process simulation and support generation) remains a consistent priority among new and established firms.

Data and sources

Published: 26 March 2021

Source: AMPOWER 2021 / authors as described

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