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German TV Interview About 3D Printing

I was recently interviewed by Matthias Roeckl of the German television channel/website Puls. Puls was formerly known as On3, and is sort of a German MTV type channel, run by Bayerischer Rundfunk, a Bavarian international network similar to the BBC. Matthias took a day to come up to my studio at SASD at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut to talk to me about the activities there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap26xvNm-P4

There is also some discussion with Michael Curry of MakerBot about the “Robo Hand” project. While there is a lot about wearable prints, we also talked about some of the other issues raised by 3D printing, and how it will affect product design, manufacturing, and culture.

Global PA2200 Supply Disruption

The factory that produces the primary ingredient for the entire global supply of nylon 3D-printing powder is out of commission.

On March 31st, an explosion at a manufacturing plant (Evonik Industries) in Marl, Germany killed two workers and took 130 firefighters ~15 hours to bring under control. The plant was severely damaged and will be out of commission for approximately three months. This one plant produces nearly half of the global supply of PA12, the primary ingredient of PA2200, the polyamide (nylon) laser-sintering powder. The Evonik plant had been the single source for all nylon sintering powder production worldwide. This material is known as “White, Strong and Flexible” on Shapeways, and is one of their least expensive and highest selling materials. That could change as a result of this disruption. A leading supplier of sintering powders, ALM has stopped accepting new orders for this material and is suggesting alternatives. ALM has stated that they will be producing only with existing stock until the plant is back in operation. The effects of the disruption are predicted to last six to nine months.

The auto industry is heavily dependent on this material for many applications, and there are few replacement materials that could be used without changing the designs for what is being manufactured. Many of the components are seals and pressure lines for brakes and other safety equipment, so the designs could not be changed without extensive testing that could take months to verify. I believe this has exposed a weakness, not just in global supply chains for traditional manufacturing, but a potential limit for scalability in additive manufacturing. The adoption of 3D printing for more applications requires that designs are created specifically for the material with which they will be produced. This is partly a limitation of technology, as the machines are often only able to use a few specific materials, but this is also an essential requirement that must be met if 3D printing is to approach traditional manufacturing in efficiency. Having to modify a design or a production system to adapt to a new material may negate the efficiencies that were predicted to arrive with local manufacturing. Laser sintering systems can use several materials, but this is not acceptable if product consistency is to be maintained. A designer cannot design for manufacturability unless the properties of the materials are stable and predictable.

An often stated advantage of local, distributed production is that only raw materials will need to be shipped, which is more efficient than packaged goods. The materials would be converted into products on site, and this increased efficiency would reduce our reliance on imported goods. There is clearly something wrong with this assertion if a disaster at a single location can take out the entire system. This means that manufacturing of component materials must be distributed as well as production, and this is no small feat, since quality control will become far more difficult, and local sourcing may be impossible due to the locations of natural resources. To address this, we will have to adopt standard materials that are easily sourced in various environments, such as bioplastics. We will need to be able to recycle these materials very efficiently without a cumulative loss of quality. Materials scientists certainly have their work cut out for them in the 21st century.

The scale of the disruption was first reported by Bloomberg, where there is an excellent and thorough article on the event. Bloomberg – Auto Output Threatened By Resin Shortage After Explosion