Materials informatics can revolutionise the 3D printing market – IDTechEx


The 3D printing market is diverse; certain materials and applications are seeing significant commercial growth while others are still overcoming technical and economic barriers to adoption.

The next decade will undoubtedly see many changes with plenty of revenue to be generated. One thing that will be central to all of this will be the materials; an expanded and adaptable portfolio will be essential to any success. Materials informatics is an exciting new field involving data-centric approaches to materials R&D; this is impacting numerous sectors, including that of 3D printing. It is already proving to be a natural collaboration between these two emerging technologies.

IDTechEx forecast the market to be worth $18.4bn by 2030 for 3D printing materials alone, and the market activity from major companies clearly demonstrates this opportunity as they position themselves to get a significant market share. We have seen multiple key news stories from chemical giants including BASF, Evonik, Mitsubishi Chemical, DSM, and many more over recent years. The polymer market is anticipated to see a period of consolidation, inevitable with a maturing technology, but that does not mean the material market's evolution is anywhere near complete. 

The metal additive manufacturing market is anticipated to grow to $15.5 bn by 2030 after a period of decline brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a large amount of change in this field; within the powder supply chain, we have seen multiple targeted acquisitions and expansions, and there is still a large amount of technology innovation and progression typified by the binder jetting and bound metal developments. Beyond metals and polymers, there is a huge amount of attention going into ceramics, composites, multi-material solutions, and more, all with their own challenges and disruptors. 

One of the key barriers to adoption across the field has been the range of materials available and their properties. Designers are used to having a huge range of materials to choose from, and having that selection dramatically shrunk has hindered the market impact. Materials still need to be engineered for each printing process and application, for which the race is on. 

Global market forecast for metal additive manufacturing. Source: "Metal Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030"

Materials informatics (MI) is one of the most exciting areas in materials science. Primarily, MI is based on using data infrastructures and leveraging machine learning solutions for the design of new materials, the discovery of materials for a given application, and/or the optimisation of how they are processed. MI can accelerate the ‘forward’ direction of innovation (properties are realised for an input material), but the idealised solution is to enable the ‘inverse’ direction (materials are designed given desired properties or processing criteria). 

This is not straight-forward and is still at a nascent stage. In many cases, the data infrastructure is not comprehensive, and MI algorithms are often too immature for the given experimental data. The challenge is not the same as in other AI-led areas (such as autonomous cars or social media), the players are often dealing with sparse, high-dimensional, biased, and noisy data; leveraging domain knowledge is an essential part of most approaches.

IDTechEx has covered this topic in detail, and more information on the technology, players, and application areas can be found in the market report.

3D printing has presented an obvious target for the use of materials informatics and is already producing some very promising results. This article will highlight some of the key case studies in this field. 

Materials informatics can play a role at every stage of research. If this loop can be closed without human intervention, it even opens the opportunity for self-driving-labs. For more information, see the IDTechEx report, ‘Materials Informatics 2020-2030’

Citrine Informatics are one of the most notable companies offering materials informatics products and services. They cite additive manufacturing as a notable area and, in one noteworthy example, worked with HRL Laboratories to develop an aluminum alloy optimised for 3D printing that was certified by the Aluminium Association. Using MI was reported to rapidly improve this development and time to market. 

Intellegens are another exciting MI player and have also been active in metal alloys for additive manufacturing. They have carried out several notable projects, including one with GKN and another with Boeing & AMRC. In early 2021, the company announced a key partnership with Ansys merging them for the complete additive manufacturing workflow.

It is not all about metals, in fact one of the first major areas for nearly all MI companies has been in chemical formulations. Exponential Technologies are a young company that incorporates statistical expertise to the design of experiment (DoE) software. The company entered the scene by winning the Formnext star-up challenge in 2019 and started with SLM processes. This has now led them to develop appropriate resins for SLA with notable chemical companies and other work with 3D printer manufacturers. 

This concept is not overly new, it is just rapidly expanding with the improvements in AI-driven solutions, expanding data infrastructures, and better awareness/education within the community. The only business model is also not to be a SaaS provider or carry out research projects. Another approach can be to develop and demonstrate a material in-house before licensing this. 

There are multiple exciting companies doing both this and research projects. QuesTek Innovations are one such player pioneering their longstanding integrated computational materials engineering (ICME) approach for a range of alloys, including those for additive manufacturing. There are also younger companies, including Alloyed (formerly OxMet Technologies), Phaseshift Technologies, and more, pursuing this alternative business model. OxMet Technologies previously specialised in nickel alloys and received investment from JX Nippon Mining & Metals, Alloyed have recently entered into a partnership with TANIOBIS (a subsidiary of JX Nippon Mining & Metals); meanwhile, Phaseshift are focused on bringing amorphous alloys to market. 

As is the mantra of the 21st century, data is king, and materials design for 3D printing is proving to be no exception. Building libraries for 3D printing materials and rapidly accelerating their production and development is a key emerging area. Materials informatics is a necessary catalyst to the 3D printing market. 

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