3D printing has been one of the most talked-about technologies of the last few years. Now, Verbatim has entered the market and here, Marketing Director Rüdiger Theobald talks about the background to the decision, and what the company will bring to the market.
Firstly, can you summarise what 3D printing is all about?
The 3D printing process enables physical objects to be made from 3-dimensional models, often derived from CAD software, by laying down successive layers of a material, under computer control. That material could be almost anything. Companies are experimenting with 3D printing of chocolate products, for example. However, for most applications, the material is a plastic of some type. Each deposited layer is, in effect, an incredibly thin cross-section of the object. 3D printing is what’s known as an additive manufacturing process, and the objects it can create can be of almost any shape or geometry. You can think of a 3D printer as a type of industrial robot, and as bringing capabilities that are just not possible with, and have significant advantages over, traditional ways of manufacturing or prototyping things.
What are those capabilities that are just not possible?
There are so many. The first that comes to mind is that you can create extraordinarily complex things that would defeat today’s manufacturing technologies – things with highly unorthodox structures and shapes, or that need to combine raw materials in a new way. Then, there’s the advantage that, to create something, you don’t have to make the often enormous investment in tooling upfront which can be a barrier to the successful commercial production of products that would have only a limited production run. 3D printing can often be more cost-effective than traditional manufacturing methods and it makes customisation very easy. It’s also a very green manufacturing technology, using less material and less energy and creating less waste.
Where is the big demand today for 3D printing?
It started off very much in the worlds of engineering, architecture and manufacturing. Now, it’s being adopted by a wide range of industries. Healthcare is a really good example with dental applications, hip and knee replacements and so on. Complete prosthetic hands are already being 3D printed. The aerospace and automotive industries are also big users for printing components. The big opportunity, though, is for 3D printing to become commonplace in the mass consumer market, something analysts predict will happen soon.
You entered the 3D printing market last year, which took many in the industry by surprise, as it’s not a market anyone would usually associate with Verbatim. What’s the background to the decision?
Our parent company, Mitsubishi Chemical, is one of the largest chemical companies worldwide with extensive experience and expertise in the field of polymers. Many people associate Verbatim with optical storage media, which is one of many uses of polymers and 3D printing also makes use of polymers. In fact, we have access to over 12,000 types of plastic that can be used for 3D printing. Our parent company saw that we have an excellent distribution network throughout the world, and that we have enjoyed considerable success with optical storage media, so it was natural that we would enter the 3D market on Mitsubishi’s behalf, providing the sales and marketing front end capability for our parent company’s research and development running in the background.
Verbatim is offering its own unique solution for 3D printing. What is that?
Of course, we offer ABS and PLA because those are industry standard materials and our offering is recognised by customers for its high quality. It is, of course, subject to the quality controls that Verbatim is renowned for.
But to succeed in this market, we believe that we need to offer something different, something unique in addition to industry standard materials.
It’s called PRIMALLOY and it’s a very flexible, rubber-like material of which there aren’t yet many in the market. It’s a thermoplastic elastomer which consists of a crystalline aromatic polyester block as the hard segment, and an uncrystalline polyether block as the soft segment. By comparison with standard TPE materials, PRIMALLOY offers more flexibility and a rubber-like elasticity. Its key features include good mechanical strength, oil resistance, chemical resistance, flex fatigue resistance and excellent heat resistance, as well as hardness stability within a wide temperature range. These features make PRIMALLOY a very attractive material for 3D printing.
What kind of applications do you envisage for PRIMALLOY?
It’s ideally suited for the automotive sector, in applications such as door locks or protective sheaths for electrical connections. There are many other applications for which we think it will be an excellent fit, such as toothbrushes, goggles and buttons, or it could be used for creating handling grips for electrical items like power tools or consumer devices like mobile phones.
Why would a customer buy from Verbatim rather than another manufacturer?
Verbatim’s filaments are manufactured from the highest quality materials and produced to extremely tight tolerances (+-0.02mm) to ensure consistent feed and stable printing results. Furthermore, our filaments are delivered in a vacuum bag, with desiccant, wound onto a bespoke Verbatim reel which has been designed for robustness, uniform dynamic performance and failure-free operation.
Customers will, we believe, also buy from us because we have excellent compatibility with the 3D printing systems out there. Part of our backup support is that we maintain on our website a list – which is always up-to-date – of the systems with which our offering is compatible.
You talk about the current B2B market for 3D printing becoming both a B2B and a B2C market. Can you expand on that?
It’s important to understand how rapidly this market will grow. Gartner, for example, estimates that, from around 110,000 3D printing units sold in 2014 at a value of over €500m, more than 2.3m units will be sold in 2018.
But yes, as I mentioned, it is currently a market dominated by professional applications: that means that the B2B market represents around 80% of the demand.
The other 20% comprises those who love technology and/or are early adopters of technology. For the mainstream consumer market, though, 3D printing is not yet sufficiently plug’n’play. Until it is, it won’t really be a consumer market but we’re convinced that will happen.
Near term, the market will continue to be predominantly a B2B market, and that’s where we and Mitsubishi are focusing our efforts with PLA, ABS, PRIMALLOY and other materials we will be introducing.
The developments we see really helping to drive the 3D printing market are, first, higher speed printing; second, the ability to print in multiple colours, and third, greater diversity of materials to expand the possible applications of the technology.