It’s a Material World

While NASA has been testing the role of 3D printing to harden moon dust (regolith) for use in the creation of lunar bases for astronauts for some years, for run of the mill engineers, the accessibility of 3D printable materials has been somewhat restricted – until recently.

An open culture has been an essential catalyst for the speed of adoption and development of the 3D printing marketplace, underpinned by collaborative and knowledge sharing. Now that model has extended with Ultimaker’s alliances with leading materials companies providing immediate and low cost access to a plethora of materials that can be used not only proof of concept and functional prototypes but for tooling, bridge manufacturing and spare parts production. With the Ultimaker Material Alliance Program now reaching over 80 companies, Paul Croft, Director at Ultimaker GB, outlines the extraordinary new 3D printable materials enabling a new generation of applications.

Material Diversity

There is no doubt that material diversity – or the lack of it – was an early constraint to widespread 3D print adoption. Initial developments were restricted to materials such as ABS thermoplastic and the renewable but less robust PLA. Elastima based materials then started to creep into the market; before wood fill and brass fill – materials essentially focused on aesthetics and finish quality rather than engineering grade material – added to the technology’s somewhat hobbyist perception.

To achieve global, industrial scale adoption something had to change: materials had to become more widely available and, critically, in a way that was both accessible and easy to use. But it was the ultimate Catch 22: why should manufacturers deliver materials specifically for 3D print use without proof of a strong market? How could end users determine which materials offered the correct qualities without a cost effective, simple access and usage model?

The accessibility of low cost, high quality 3D print hardware and software solutions was the core foundation; but to fully embrace 3D printing on an industrial scale, businesses need a repeatable, reliable and consistent form.

Materials Alliance

It is the open nature of the Ultimaker 3D print model that overcame the impasse. The Ultimaker Material Alliance Program is a collaboration with the chemical industry that is enabling companies of any size to access the Intellectual Property of the vast majority of leading chemical providers and simply download the relevant material print profile. In reality, a company can invest in a £5,000 desktop 3D printer and have a choice of thousands of materials to print with. Materials not only suitable for a functional prototype but also with specific properties such as heat deflection, impact and chemical resistance, flexibility, tensile strength, even antibacterial, are now widely available and can support the entire product lifecycle.

The result is transformative. There is no longer any need to undertake protracted, trial and error based processes to get the correct print settings to produce a part. Instead, a company can select the manufacturers predeveloped profile and hit ‘print’. Whether looking for a material certified for medical use or one with heat resistant properties, this immediate and low cost access to such a vast range of materials opens the doors for a huge variety of companies to now consider 3D printing, not only for proof of concept and functional prototypes but for mass manufacturing tooling and spare parts.

Today over 80 companies are now part of the Ultimaker Material Alliance Program, including huge name such as BASF, DSM, DuPont, Owens Corning, Arkema, Jabil and Lehmann&Voss&Co. Due to the availability and immediate access to a library of material print profiles, there is no need to spend days, weeks, even months to tweak profiles to get the right parameters: the materials providers have already undertaken that work. The settings required to print each material in its optimum way are automatically generated into the software for reprinting.

New Opportunities

The breadth of market opportunity is driving ever faster innovation and new thinking – with the introduction of Tough PLA for example, which is supporting far more robust applications of this renewable corn based material. The addition of soluble support for PVA is also enabling the amazing shapes created by Generative Design to be printed as a solid piece, with the soluble PVA then dissolved away to leave the optimised, AI generated shape.

These innovations are just the start; the materials currently under development will open up new horizons with an extraordinary array of new applications. Copper 3D, a US-based Chilean company, is exploring the concept of Active Materials – essential materials that are no longer inert and only support structures but are active components that play a specific role and add great value to the final 3D printed object. The company has created antibacterial 3D printing materials for medical devices, based on a patented additive featuring copper nanoparticles and, in the future, other nano-elements.

With funding from NASA, the material’s antimicrobial properties are currently being tested on the International Space Station (ISS), with the research assessing the potential for antimicrobial 3D printed medical devices for astronauts. The material has very significant potential for the treatment of complex wounds, as well as prosthetics, with the potential for new active and antimicrobial medical devices.

UK based Filamentive are developing a range of recycled 3D printable materials, providing organisations with the opportunity to support sustainable strategies without any compromise of design or quality. There are materials that are electrostatic discharge (ESD) safe, enable engineers and designers within the electronics industry to further explore desktop 3D printing, whilst meeting industry regulations.

Continuing to make more applications available on an Ultimaker 3D Printer, BASF has also developed a metallic filament that can be printed on FFF machines and produces entirely metal prints. The ability to use metal material within an existing 3D printing infrastructure, fundamentally transforms the supply chain: companies can now embrace a scalable, affordable, print on demand solution for metal parts that enables a local, just in time production model by leveraging the MIM (metal injection moulding) post processing network.


Change is rarely linear; and while the software and hardware required to support Additive Manufacture and Generative Design has been available for some time, the final piece of the puzzle is without any doubt these extraordinary materials. With the Ultimaker Material Alliance Program, professionals globally have access not only to a vast library of materials but also invaluable knowhow and shared experience.

As a result, there is huge momentum behind the 3D print evolution, encouraging many more organisations to explore opportunities for blended manufacturing models in an array of environments. Once again, the value of an open, collaborative, supportive and knowledgeable community is being proved, providing companies of every size with the ease of use, reliability and repeatability required to embrace production grade 3D printing.

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