In a search for pioneers, BASF 3D Printing Solutions identifies itself as the type of company that is key to the future of additive manufacturing (AM), and the type that for too long wasn’t present in the market at all.
Machine vendors, software developers, ancillary tech providers, and of course, the end-users are all important too, but peak chemical expertise has mostly been lacking. It has not just meant many a 3D printing material product has fallen below the expectations of manufacturers wanting to produce end-use parts but has also meant there hasn’t been enough to choose from either.
There is potential in the AM market as there always has been, and all the more, a potential for innovative ideas to be realised. The former explains BASF’s establishing of a dedicated 3D printing division 12 months back, and the latter defines its approach going forward, an approach summarised succinctly on the final day of TCT Show 2018 by Managing Director, Volker Hammes.
On a stand that featured true industrial components, like automotive air ducts and manifolds, with the BASF business’ ‘We Create Chemistry’ marketing slogan amidst the backdrop, Hammes stressed the importance of leveraging its decades’ worth of experience developing materials in tandem with the complementary expertise of a variety of collaborators.
“We think one of the reasons why 3D printing didn’t make it into the industrial world is that it was designed for prototyping and the companies that were the major incumbents were actually applying this closed business model and were trying to do everything themselves, which slows down innovation. However, this business model is not the right one for serial industrial manufacturing,” Hammes argued. “Apart from a few pioneering champions, for example Materialise, the key players were rather inactive to offer other solutions as well, so we think by good collaboration where those who are best in each discipline work project-by-project on moving the needle, that they will go much faster.”
Hence, BASF 3D Printing Solutions surged out the blocks, teaming up with a string of hardware OEMs, software vendors, and materials specialists too. In addition to its long-term partner, Farsoon, Essentium Materials and BigRep agreed alliances in 2017. With Essentium, robust materials for extrusion-based processes; with BigRep, similar materials, while its partner continued developing advanced equipment and software.
Meanwhile, 2018 has been even more productive. At the AMUG Conference, the company co-launched some high-performance materials under the UltraFuse brand with Essentium, and two months prior, the collaboration with BigRep was expanded to co-develop applications. Ultimaker became a partner, hoping to bring professional-standard materials to a leading desktop machine. And most recently, the company injected $25m into Materialise and set its focus on the optimisation of software and materials across a range of processes, with an emphasis on open sourcing. Advanc3D and SetUp Performance were also wholly acquired by the 3D Printing Solutions group this year.
A busy period, then, but not without good reason. BASF might have only set up a dedicated 3D printing division last year, but its presence dates a few years back (the company has been working with Farsoon since 2015), and its studying from afar a few years further. The wider BASF company has worked with some of the biggest names in a range of industries for decades and thus has the weight to inspire others to recognise the possibilities in applying additive manufacturing technology, particularly through the already fruitful, and impending, output of its 3D printing arm.
In this instance, BASF is a proverbial London bus, along with the likes of SABIC and Clariant who have also entered the market in recent years: Wait forever for a chemical giant to turn up, and a few come at once. For BASF it is needed, it always has been, and the results could be big.
“Take the example of additive extrusion solutions filament in particular. Stratasys was, and is, dominating, and they should get big credit for what they have done for the technology, but after 20 years or so they had in the magnitude of 10 to 15 different materials to offer, of which two were ‘best sellers’,” Hammes assessed. “We think this is a technology that is the most applicable one to bring the world of plastics to the end user, so actually we should launch a new product by the week, and not sit on just a few. I’m not speaking just about us, I’m speaking about all who are active. We should do our part but we can’t do everything alone.”
That extends beyond just the constant yield of professional-grade materials, but to the aforementioned hardware, software and ancillary tech developers. And too the end user. There needs to be a continuous wave of innovation in the tools, but there needs to be more courage from the people who will end up applying them also. Everyone has to do their bit.
“It is on us, but it is also on the end users to take a certain risk and to move maybe in small series, in mid-size series, of ever more challenging parts and gain experience to put processes in place,” Hammes stressed. “At the end of the day, if you manufacture, you have to have certified quality and reproduce quality and all of that.
“We would like to combine our general manufacturing experience, our global supply chain, and our application know-how with the ecosystem but we realise that we are very much depending on the seriousness and the risk-taking and financial commitment of the potential end users and there you see huge differences between firms, how much they are willing to invest on their own, or just wait and they will become at best early adopters, if not late followers. We are looking for the pioneers, and that’s why we are [at TCT Show]. We are here so that people can come to use and say ‘I have this idea; can you help us realise it?’”
BASF 3D Printing Solutions reckons it probably can, if not already, then certainly in the future. Its collaborations and acquisitions span three continents, and product portfolio caters for the material extrusion, powder bed fusion, and VAT photopolymerisation processes. On the latter, there is a handful of resin-based experimental materials currently being tested by pilot customers, with commercial availability expected before the end of the decade.
Though only in operation for a year, and still apparently in the ‘build-up’ phase, the company’s productivity has been consistent. It pretty much represents BASF’s ‘bit’ in visions of a material by the week, by extension, it’s ‘bit’ in accelerating the adoption of AM, and why what Hammes finishes on isn’t at all hard to believe.
“I’m pretty sure we will hit the market in a big way.”